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Birds, not of a feather

Forbidden penguin love is an albatross 'round one's neck

by Thor Iverson

A man’s home…

Of all the things and places toured by visitors to New Zealand, a castle is one of the most unlikely. This is a country of natural wonders, of breathtaking scenery, of environments so unique they can never be truly captured by word or image. Castles…well, Europe is stuffed to the gills with ’em, and some pretty damned impressive ones as well. What could this far-flung corner of a far-flung country possibly offer in comparison?

A long, tragic, and occasionally scandalous history, for one thing…which is appropriate enough. Larnach Castle isn’t going to make anyone forget, say, Warwick, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion for a morning’s visit. The rooms are nicely restored, showing a level of historic extravagance that seems even more out of place (given its remote location, far from what would have passed for “civilization” in those days) than does the castle itself, and there are some entertaining decorative details: “sans peur (without fear),” the original owner’s family motto, is paired on an elaborate stained glass window with...those with an affection for puns can see it coming…several cats. Lodging and meals are available, though one has to book far in advance.

[Larnach Castle][pink flowers]
[red flowers & castle][stump with door]
[fuchsia][yellow flower]

However, it’s the grounds that are the real draw here. Not only is the castle itself situated in a high point of the Otago Peninsula, providing (especially from its upper turret) wonderful panoramic views of the peninsula’s hills and harbor, but careful work has been done to make the grounds a showpiece for local plants and flowers. Neither Theresa nor myself have ever been particularly moved by matters botanical, but between yesterday’s hike and this morning’s excursion, we’re developing more interest than we’d ever imagined. In one especially artful corner of the grounds, with sheep covering the far-below valley floor like little maggots or grains of wiggling rice, a massive stump has sprouted a cleverly-carved door; something straight out of (or to) Narnia. (Unfortunately, the magical aura is a bit dampened when one peers behind the door; it turns out that it’s just a storage closet for gardening supplies. Mr. Tumnus is nowhere to be found.)

…is around his neck

We partake of a latish lunch, feasting from yesterday’s leftovers, including the Kennedy Point 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough), which is greener and leaner than it was the day before, showing more lemongrass, lime, and lemon thyme than the tropical notes it had sported previously. It’s still quite fun, though.

Driving east along the harbor, we pass an abandoned whaling station, a series of picturesque huts on elevated piers, and the rather depressed Maori settlement of Otakau (after which the peninsula is named), before climbing up the steep promontory at the end of the peninsula to Taiaroa Head. Far below us, waves thunder against ocean-etched cliff walls, with tangled colonies of bull kelp oscillating in the water’s relentless approach and retreat. A lonely lighthouse dots the tip of the peninsula, but what we’re here for is just a little bit inland.

[ship & swans]

Come sail away
On the rocky shore known as Pilots Beach, people congregate around a wretched stench. Blending into the rock are several dozen sea lions…many behind a protective fence, but some unconcernedly napping just a few feet from a curious public. They’re adorable, but wow does their waste smell horrible. And all around them, no doubt adding to the stench, are the crushed and rotted carcasses of unwary seagulls. We do spend some close-up time with these blubbery snoozers, but eventually the stench overwhelms us, and we scale a long path to a rather crowded car park. Anyway, it’s time.

The wind rises and falls on this gloomy, grayscale afternoon, but whenever it reaches its higher velocities, a dozen figures rise into the air and circle the peninsula’s heights. From a distance they look like especially graceful gulls, but as they approach their size and their overwhelming wingspan gives them away as anything but gulls. Turning, wheeling, banking, but never, ever flapping, these incomparable avians soar, dive, and lift among the currents with only the slightest tilts and readjustments of their massive wings. Occasionally, one will descend to within a dozen feet or so, and the vortex of its passage can be felt. But then the winds slacken, and the circling stops. And, finally, one remembers to breathe.

The birds overhead are the highly-endangered (though it seems almost everything on this peninsula shares that dubious distinction) royal albatross, and here at Taiaroa Head is a carefully-maintained Royal Albatross Center that gives tours of their protected habitat. After a fascinating instructional video, we’re led up a long concrete walkway – albatross in full flight overhead, swooping and racing at almost unbelievable speeds, much, much closer than any that fly over the car park and occasionally forcing us to hold onto railings to avoid being swept along their flight path – and into a protected overlook from which one can view the colony’s full population.

From here, the true wonder of the birds’ flight can be fully understood; their tripartite wings, folded against their body, unfurl in stages as they catch a passing breeze and, with a slight rotation of their wingtips, lift themselves heavenward. A few circlings of their habitat later, they float down, refolding their nearly ten-foot wings against their body as they land, waiting for another current strong enough to support their gliding flight. Small clusters of adolescent albatross, their epic wingspans not yet fully developed, congregate in head-lifting chatter, then drift away, then re-congregate in packs, just like their human counterparts. And on the ground, watchful mothers guard fuzzy and fragile-looking chicks – though anything a few weeks old that’s already larger than most chickens can hardly be all that fragile – waiting for their chance, six months in the future, to test the airs themselves.

[setting sun at Taiaroa Head]

The sun sets over Otago Harbor
[sea lion]

A lazy lion
[bull kelp]

Kelp is on the way
[royal albatross]

Albatross in flight

(An interesting aside: just a few days after our arrival, the Prince of Wales toured the colony and had a much more up-close experience than us. Though I think we were dressed more comfortably.)

The call of the wild

New Zealand is changing us. It’s the hikes, it’s the unique flora and fauna, it’s the soul-stirring majesty of creatures such as these. It’s the subconscious rhythm of nature, all around and on display for anyone with open senses, as carefully protected from the ravages of progress as those very forces can manage. For me, it is perhaps a rediscovery of something I’d thought lost: a youth spent in the country that had long been no more than background noise by the time I’d left it for the adventures of the city. For Theresa, well-traveled but a city girl at heart, it’s a sort of awakening at just the right time and place, when despite all her many travels, she is finally ready for something truly new…and yet, truly old at the same time. Our journey redefines itself, taking new forms and new shapes as we move through its experiences. And no amount of planning, no matter how careful or well-intentioned, can prepare one for that.

[Otago Harbor & flowers]

Morning view
Pigs, deer and peacocks

Back in Otakau, we spend a few moments admiring the exterior of a closed marae (meeting house) before hunger overtakes us and we retreat to the comfort of our cottage. Haphazard pasta bundles stuffed with bacon and pepper are accompanied by chunks of locally-produced triple-smoked bacon (fantastic, though so lean it is of almost no use as a lubricating medium, and we’re forced to resort to some equally fantastic butter), venison sausage, and broccoli are tossed in a pan – a true carnivore’s delight – while I open something entirely unexpected.

Peacock Ridge 2002 Merlot “Reserve” (Waiheke Island) – While we certainly didn’t lack for wine-tasting opportunities on Waiheke Island, we didn’t get to taste everywhere we’d have liked to taste. Some wineries simply weren’t open to the public, some were single-family operations too small to contemplate visitors, and others were still part-time pursuits owned by busy professionals who work full-time in Auckland. Peacock Ridge is, I believe, of the second category; in any case, neither Sally nor Jon Ewer (the owners) were available to chat or taste during my stay on the island. But in a striking gesture of generosity – which is becoming less and less surprising to me in this relentlessly generous country – Jon arranged for the delivery of a pair of their wines to the Villa Pacifica, and I’m just now getting the opportunity to taste them.

Admittedly, I approach tasting this first one with some trepidation. I’m not exactly a merlot fanatic, and the word “reserve” fills me with all sorts of horrible visions of over-extraction, over-oaking, and over-fruiting. Yet at first sniff, the wine shows none of those characteristics, and in fact none of any other characteristics either. Tighter than a drum, it is. With a lot of encouraging swirling and decanting back and forth between the bottle and a flower vase (one must make do with the tools at hand), it emerges from hiding…and then blossoms. Soft, rich, ripe fruit with smoky tobacco elements pair with a dusty, silky, but still firm textural component to the structure that plays out on a medium-long finish. A serious, adult approach to this often silly grape, with real interest and the beginnings of complexity. Very, very nicely done.

The wine is still firm enough that we put it aside for later consideration, and finish up our evening by sipping from a bottle I’ve randomly extracted from the shelves of the local liquor mart:

Church Road 1999 “Noble” Semillon “Reserve” (Hawke’s Bay) – All the rich, candied fig and lush peach/pear syrup you’d want from a wine of this style, with layered cinnamon and oak spice. Still, the acidity is a bit spiky, and the finish thin enough that the overall impression is considerably more watery than the initial texture would indicate. This wine is almost where it should be, but one suspects that a little more concentration on the fruit (vs. reliance on the externals of botrytis and oak) would improve matters. Still, it’s a good effort and a fun dessert wine.

[Hoopers Inlet]

Hoopers Inlet
Bill stops by with more breakfast supplies (we haven’t even finished today’s bounty) and a healthy side of advice. He also complains, at some length, about the Okia Track we’d taken the day before, claiming that it’s not maintained up to his standards, and that he’s “going to write a letter” to the Department of Conservation. My wife, unable to resist, asks our advanced-in-age host how long it took him to do the hike, which took us about two and a half hours of casual strolling interspersed with beach-sitting

“45 minutes, maybe.”

OK, so maybe we have some work to do on this nature-loving thing.

Sheep, sheep, and more sheep

And so, the next morning, we’re up early and energized to tackle a slightly more difficult track. This one, called Sandymount, starts along a shady lane of rather imposing trees, then emerges onto a series of buckling hills covered with three things of increasing ubiquity: grass, sheep, and sheep droppings. At first, we attempt to pick our way around the minefield, but eventually the task proves too difficult and we resign ourselves to merely giving the larger piles a miss. The sheep, quite shaggy and in need of a good shearing, scamper across and around our path, which leads us through seemingly unending herds of them as we slowly ascend a hill, the bright blue-turquoise ocean rolling onto sandy beaches far below us.

The path diverges towards two plunging and vertiginous caverns called Lovers Leap and The Chasm, then starts climbing up and down brush-covered sand dunes many hundreds of meters above the beach, finally cutting through a small forest to a grassy path that descends back towards our car. The hike takes us a few hours, but at a more aggressive pace than we’d taken the previous day, and while the breathtaking views were unquestionably worth the work, at the end we’re left wanting more.

[Sandfly Bay from Sandymount]

The view from Sandymount
[descent to Hoopers Inlet]

Descending towards Hoopers Inlet
[sheep on path]

“This way! Baaa! This way! Baaa!”
[sheep bone]

This…is an ex-sheep

Forbidden love

So from the end of this track, we drive dusty dirt roads around the stilt-filled lagoon of Hoopers Inlet to Allans Beach, which today is quite the popular destination. And without much delay, we see why: right at the entrance to the beach are pair of fat, grunting, wheezing Hooker sea lion bulls responding to the circle of intruders around them with casual flicks of cooling sand over their enormous bodies. Occasionally, one will raise his head and open his jaw in challenge, but it’s a mostly empty threat, as they’re really interested in nothing so much as sleeping the day away.

[shag & penguin]

“Baby, please!”
Further down the beach, a spotted shag waves and undulates his wings in some sort of bizarre courtship ritual, complete oblivious to the people trudging around him. I look around to find the target of his courtship, but there are no other shags to shag, so to speak. Bizarrely, it appears that the object of his affection is perched high on a cliffside rock: a yellow-eyed penguin trapped by the end of its molt.

Now, far be it from me to stand in the way of true interspecies love, but this seems to be a fruitless passion. First of all, with a molt in progress and thus unable to swim away from predators, this penguin isn’t moving from its rock until it’s damned good and ready to do so. Second, the penguin seems totally disinterested in the (or a) shag, and is instead focused on all the people creeping up nearby rocks to get a closer look. But I don’t want to judge, and so I leave the shag to his prancing display and proceed back towards the car.

Every girl’s crazy ’bout a sharp-dressed penguin

Back at the cottage, and planning evening activities that will preclude an expansive dinner, we make lunch the centerpiece meal of our day. I combine the remains of last night’s venison sausage with some pan-roasted kumara and fennel fronds, which we eat on the deck with the rest of last night’s Peacock Ridge 2002 Merlot “Reserve” (Waiheke Island). After a dozen hours of room-temperature oxidation, the oak has started to dominate the fading fruit, but it’s still a structured and ageable wine, and given better treatment should reward the patient.

Bill invites himself up to our patio for more (unsolicited this time) advice-giving, and we begin to wonder if he isn’t a little bit lonely. Nonetheless, his musings do lead us to one of the most cherished days of our entire trip (which will be described in due course, whenever this narrative reaches Glenorchy), and in retrospect we can’t thank him enough.

After lunch and some last-minute laundry, we head eastward once more, to yet another nature reserve near the end of the peninsula. Penguin Place is an entire mini-park dedicated to the care and viewing of the elusive yellow-eyed version of these waddling tuxedos, and through a complex system of “hides” and tunnels allows us to get closer than we ever could (at least legally) in the wild. Our guided visit takes us past little dens in which the faint outlines of little blue penguins enduring their own molt can be seen, and then to an overlook where our guide excitedly points out the “scout” yellow-eyed penguin that has just emerged on the beach, sussing out the twin dangers of hungry sea lions and camera-wielding tourists. Several of the aforementioned sea lions do indeed recline on nearby rocks, and they’re not the only danger: on a parallel path, a fierce-looking falcon eyes us from atop a mangled pile of ferret.

[sandy sea lion]

Reminds me of my father-in-law
Inside the hides, we manage to get fairly close to some blob-like yellow-eyes in various, fuzzy stages of molt; they clearly know we’re there, but since they can’t swim at the moment there’s not much they can do about it, and mostly they just stand there, scratching an occasional itch with their beak. Occasionally, however, one will get shy and retreat behind some grass, only to be rediscovered as we move to another blind. After a half-hour or so of this, we return to rockier exterior heights and reassess the scene. The scout has moved about twenty feet farther inland, but whatever sign he gives to his brethren has obviously not yet been given, and so we give up waiting and return to the visitors’ center, the sun setting over the grassy plains atop the peninsula’s central ridge like something out of the Serengeti. On an abandoned tractor, the tiniest owl I’ve ever seen perches, watching the rumbling passage of our coach and hoping it will disturb a few ground rodents; it’s not the amusingly-named native morepork, but rather some tiny German import…and anyway it’s a little early for nighttime feeding. (Though maybe the falcon will share some ferret, if it asks nicely.)

From here, we drive cool, nearly-abandoned roads back to the Royal Albatross Center for a sight that’s not much advertised outside the peninsula itself: the arrival of the little blue penguins on Pilots Beach. A small crowd has gathered, along with some incredibly irritating and nasty volunteers from a local preservation group – some of the only truly rude New Zealanders I have ever encountered, though the Kiwis among the tourists are complaining about them more than those of us from other shores – barking out orders and directions, mostly regarding a prohibition on flash pictures lest we blind the little critters.

We wait, as the sun completes its slow descent behind the hills and shades everything in a deepening blue. Just as the last light fails, a wiggling dark mass emerges from the water. It’s tiny, but the waddle unmistakably marks it as one of the penguins we’re here to see. This scout wastes little time, and behind him close to a dozen shapes rush out of the water and cluster on the beach, pausing just on the water’s edge. What follows is an amusing process of patient caution and furious, short-legged flopping up the beach to a small path cleared specifically for their passage, and then to their nests far, far up into the surrounding hills. It must take them half the night!

[juvenile yellow-eyed penguin]

Yellow-eyed penguin, juvenile stage
[sunset at Pilots Beach]

Sunset on Pilots Beach
[albatross in flight]

The final evening’s circling
[blue penguins]

The nighttime arrival of the blues
(heavily-enhanced; it was completely dark)

Eventually, it gets too dark to see anything, and we return to our car. Halfway up the hill, in almost total darkness and finding our way as much by feel as by sight, we hear a rustling to our right and come to a dead and silent stop. No more than a foot in front of us, a pair of dimly-perceived shapes shuffle across our path. It’s two of the little blues, completely unconcerned by our presence.

Nature has, at last, accepted us. And though we’re leaving, it’s to plunge even more headlong into a world where nature, not man, holds sway. A journey that we’d viewed with a certain measure of trepidation just a few days before. And now?

Now we can’t wait.

Disclosure: the bottle of Peacock Ridge is a gift from the winery.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.