Once we passed the half way mark of our road trip around the South Island, we realized we were ahead of schedule so it was time to wind things down. The next couple of stops we made are the most memorable for me because there is nothing more beautiful than seeing animals in their natural environment.
When we arrived in the Petrified Forest, we were bummed out that we missed the sunset. As we walked down onto the rocks, a sudden silence came upon us and people were frozen in front of their cameras. As I walked around to see what was going on, I was told to move out of the way by this old man. I was kind of upset as he could have asked in a nicer manner. Then I saw this little fat figure wobbling side to side and then hopping over the rocks. OMG, it was a Yellow-Eyed penguin and I was standing on his path home. I moved right away and for the next 5 minutes, I was back in high school looking at my first crush and my heart was beating so fast I was sure everyone could hear it.
I later learned Yellow-Eyed penguins like to nest in the forest or in shrubs. In the month of November, the chicks start to hatch. The parents will take turns foraging at the ocean and return usually at noon and in the evening, while the other stays, caring their helpless chicks. Upon their way home onshore, if frighten, they would go back into the waters which is dangerous for them because of the strong currents. It is vital that we were are always at least 5 meters away from them and if you see a penguin standing still near you, you need to move out of the way.
That night, we parked at a campsite for the first time. It was great since we had power for the first time. We charged all our electronics and I caught up on my Twilight series. In the morning, we did laundry, lunched right outside our caravan, and enjoyed the cliff views overlooking the vast ocean. We didn’t see any dolphins but when we returned back to the Petrified Forest at noon, we were once again very lucky to spot an endangered Yellow-Eyed penguin sunbathing on the rocks. Yellow-eyed penguins are very territorial and like to be spread out. This penguin had not been accepted by the clan yet, therefore had no home at this point in time.
For our next rare animal encounter, we headed to the Royal Albatross Centre in Otago Peninsula. While we were standing outside debating on the hefty entrance fee, there were many birds flying around. Someone once told me if I ever saw an Albatross, I would know right away. At that exact moment, I knew I was looking at an albatross as it soared right above us. With its friendly face smiling down at us and its magnificent wingspan breaking all records, I was feeling that high school crush again but this time, I was screaming, “It’s an albatross.”
Nearby, there was a group of people, growing in numbers, looking out onto the beach. As I made my way towards the crowd, I bumped into a friendly park ranger. He informed me the Little Blue Penguins were going to make their way home around 7pm. I walked to the sand to see what everyone was excited about. In front of me, behind a fence, was a blue penguin in its burrow. Ever so often, it would pop out as if it was anxiously waiting for someone. We waited until dark and then the most unbelievable thing happened. In the water, there was a group of torpedoes making its way closer to the shore. Then these tiny things hopped onto the beach and wobbled their way towards us. It was the world’s smallest blue penguin after another. When they made their way back home, the sounds they made were the joyous sounds I have ever heard. I felt bliss, hope, and love for these little creatures that take risks all the time when they leave their homes to feed.
Now that I was satisfied with my penguin sightings, I had no expectations of SandFly Beach. After 2 hours of walking in the hot sand dunes, we finally made it to the beach. We later realized there was a road that would have brought us directly to the beach without all that hiking. I just wanted to jump into that freezing cold water and lay on the beach. While I tried to embrace the sun, I saw large mounts of sand randomly across the beach. I went for a walk and as I got closer to one of the large mounts, it started to move. When I saw what it was, my face stood frozen and I was suddenly unable to talk or move. It was a remarkable moment and it felt as if I went exploring on the wild beaches of New Zealand and found a new subspecie. It turned out to be a sea lion, a male Hooker’s Sea Lion to be exact.
Now this was something I could not find back home. If time is limited on your visit to the South Island, head straight for the Otago Peninsula.