Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Penguins and Oblong Balls

Christchurch was a very pleasant surprise. A day and a couple of evenings showed us a laid back pretty cathedral/university town much like many in southern England. This is not surprising I suppose when you consider it was a church settlement meant to be just that. Still it has nice buildings, a laid back cafe scene, some good bars and a gentle pace of life for a city of its size (something like 300,000). A sunny Sunday morning stroll was embellished with a walk round a charming market and one of the nicest city parks I have come across. The botanical gardens have it all, ornate openings, a cricket pitch and, best of all, quiet woodland full of native tree and fern. Rugger Bugger

What India is to cricket and Brazil is to football, New Zealand is to rugby. The country is obsessed with its oblong shaped balls and we had got our hands on tickets to the provincial rugby final – Canterbury v Wellington. I shall admit that it was not that hard to get tickets with locals explaining that, for the first time, there is something of overkill rugby style with international, Super 14's and provincial rugby vying for interest and littering the calendar with fixtures. Despite this I was so excited.
I was not disappointed. Canterbury ran out winners in a high quality match that kept us all entertained. The fans were civil and comic. A Wellingtonians shout of “Rather be a politician then a sheep-shagger!” (an insinuation as to the spare time habits of those from the Canterbury region) was met with laughs and friendly retorts. There was real pride in the local team lifting the cup, but understated as Kiwis generally are, there was no mad riot on the streets, but rather contented wandering to the nearest watering hole. Dirt tracks to penguin countryside
Chris and I ran off on our own for a day out to the Banks Peninsular, a gorgeous mass of rugged land thrusting out of the Pacific Ocean to the south of Canterbury. The scenic route meant that and much else. After some windy roads past holiday houses overlooking turquoise bays, we were left with little choice then to take a 20km dirt track over the spine of the peninsular with our little two-wheel drive car. I say little choice, but we could have turned back. Sod that. A bit of skidding on the more precipitously steep parts only added to the adventure of a stunning route. It took us something like 45 minutes to do this little trek and against the odds we even saw another car (a four-wheel drive). Loads of fun, but Chris and I were a touch relieved to make it back on to a paved road and launch it towards Akaroa.

A picturesque fishing village originally settled by the French and more recently by tourists. The Gallic influence is still strong with good food and the occasional flag. Throwing potential rest to the wind we signed up for the penguin eco-tour and soon found ourselves being whisked up and over the rim of the large volcanic crater that creates the setting for Akaroa. The road soon resembled those of our early adventures but we had nothing to fear with our local host chugging round the corners and pointing out abundant areas of interest and beauty.

The family that run the tours own most of the surrounding sharp valleys and hills. The land they do not own, has been given or entrusted by them to the government as wildlife reserve. The rest is devoted to sheep and the constant problem of exterminating bright-yellow flowering gorse – some Scot had the bright idea of throwing some seed on settling – even when you cut it all up you have to stay vigilant for a 30 year period in which seeds can germinate.

The lady taking the tours discusses everything with a toned down passion. Arriving at her farmhouse down by the penguin bay she has to stop for a few minutes to hand feed a small black lamb that was abandoned in a storm. The thing follows us round like a puppy for the rest of the afternoon. We are each kitted up with combat jackets (to confuse the penguins) and binoculars before heading along small paths that wind their way along the steep hills that rise out of Flea Bay.
We are on the watch for little white-flippered penguins. I do not use the term “little” as a descriptive or derogatory terms, although they are very little, but in giving you their actual name. They nest in burrows up to 600m up the hillside. That sounds like a lot, but it is simply a monumental distance to hop up a steep incline when you are of little penguin proportions. To aid their breeding, the guides have added wooden boxes to the hillside. This means that (a) more chicks are born and (b) vitally, they can check how the breeding is going. Fundamentally this is a conservation project and it is a delight to go along the hillside checking nesting boxes for eggs and chicks.
The next hour or so is spent at various hidden view points. Our first glimpse of the penguins on mass is in groups of a few dozen swimming rather like ducks out in the channel. At first it is hard to see any and then, swiveling the binoculars across the water you pick up one flock after another. An exhilarating experience. Moving to another hide we have great views of the first penguins hopping ashore.
As you can probably tell, this was taken through the binoculars...
As dusk falls we watch a last few waddle into view before heading back to the base of the valley. It is important we are out of there before they start the major climb up the hillside otherwise, being shy creatures, they will just stay on the rocky shoreline and the chicks will go hungry.

I have to say just how impressed I was with this tour and the people who run it. They go to extensive efforts to aid the penguin population including hundreds of traps aroun the perimeter of their land to keep out feral animals such as stoats, which the penguins have not evolved to contend with (there were no land mammals in NZ before the Maori started disembarking circa 1000 years ago).

Off with the camo gear and back along the rugged road in the dark. A possum (Aussie rodent type thing) pops up to remind us of the feral breed and I can see our host wants to run it over, but holds odd for our benefit. There is a movement to eco-fur here where “cute” feral mammals are killed and skinned for the benefit of the native animals and local economy – this one looked like it would make a nice hat...

Off back to Christchurch and ready for the push across the mountains. We were in the mood for some tramping!

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