Quest for Penguins: Valerie and I set off for adventure and embarked on a sacred quest in search of the venerated penguin.

March 18
Valerie and I saw the film "Baraka" in Christchurch.  This movie has no dialogue, only images and sounds of the natural and living Earth.  It was probably the most impressive movie I've ever seen.  When we left, we both looked at each other and said, "Can you believe that?"  It was that good.  We made preparations for the Banks Peninsula Track and got reservations to see a ballet on the night we would return.  We hitched out of Christchurch to the town of Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula.  It took us one ride to get there, but we started off a bit late and the van that would bring us to the first hut had its engine running, ready to leave, when we arrived.  It was a pretty nice hut, certainly fancier than the huts on the Dusky.  Valerie and I had a two-person slumber party as we sat under a blanket and talked over hot chocolate. I don't know what it was about that evening, but we really had a good time.

That night Valerie said that I snored.  Now I've railed on before about snorers and how they should be pelted with shoes or better yet, boots.  She said, "I couldn't believe it was you, because you complain about others who snore."  I told her she should have woken me up or at least thrown a boot at me. I certainly believe in equal treatment for everyone.  I'm sure that this was the only time that I snored during the whole trip...

March 19-22
The Banks Peninsula Track is an easy one, with only 3-4 hours of tramping per day.  Valerie tried to catch up on her diary and I lounged around in the sun.  We didn't take off until 1:00, but no worries--we had all day.  We were often high on a cliff above the ocean and we could see forever.  That's what I remember most about the track, the views of the ocean.  The forests were nice, but not anything like Stewart Island.  We were often tramping through pastures full of sheep doo-doo, but we could see to the end of the world.  The track was overbooked (which meant all of ten people) and that night we got our own small hut.  It certainly wasn't as nice as the main hut, but Valerie and I managed just fine.

Once again we took off tramping late in the day.  We took our time and when we felt like sitting and looking at the ocean, that's what we did. We sat overlooking a small cove with kelp waving in the surf and watched a seal swim.  I like the ocean and its inhabitants.  It was a beautiful, warm summer day, the sun was out and the sea was so blue.  It felt so good to sit and gaze.  There are times in my life that I've been places that were very beautiful and the only thing that could have made it better was to have someone with me. Today, I had someone there.

 Late in the afternoon we got to the farm where the hut was located. Inside a fenced pasture was Pansy the Pig.  Pansy is kind of like a dog in that he would come running when called.  We could pick an apple from one of the trees and make him happy.  I've never petted a pig before and Pansy was as close to a living scrub brush as possible.  We looked at the map and realized we had one more night on the track than we expected and we would miss the ballet. I called the ticket office and tried to reschedule.  I tried to be nice and eventually got frustrated and just said, "$^%#@" and hung up.  In a travelogue we're usually pretty gentle on ourselves and try to make ourselves look like reasonable people, but this time, I'll admit it...I was a jerk.  The fact that the other person was being one too doesn't change anything.  The farmer asked how it went and I told her how I kind of lost my temper, which doesn't happen very often.  She said she would try to call and persuade them. I said, "It won't do any good."   She said, "Give me the number and come back later."  When we returned, we had rescheduled tickets. She said she told the ballet office that I was "Tired after a long day of tramping."   I suspect she also told them the scheduling mistake was her fault, which it really wasn't.  Amazing what a little sweet talk can do.

The hut was really nice.  It had a yard with a stream running through and a rope swing on a tree.  It also had a shower that was built around a big tree with candles lighting it at night.  This certainly wasn't a gritty tramper's hut in Fiordlands, this was luxury (well, at least luxury to me).  Valerie and I sat on the ocean shore.  We talked of life and why we travel and just sat for a while.

The following day was a bit overcast and windy and started to rain later on.  Yet, we had a decent day tramping.  Once again, Val & I had a small overflow hut to ourselves.  It certainly wasn't as nice as the main hut, but it didn't matter.  We had a good time being on our own.  Valerie is an interesting person.  She has many different characteristics.  She's tough and feminine, sensible and playful, and just all around fun to be with.  She was as kind to me as anyone ever has been.

Valerie and I started our final day of tramping in heavy winds and rain.  It certainly wasn't the most pleasant day to be hiking.  Most of the time when I've tramped in the rain, I was in a forest and protected from the wind, but the Banks Track was mostly in the open.  It may sound like all it does is rain in NZ. Yeah, it rains a lot.  However, when I look back, it seems whenever it wasn't raining, it was sunny and warm.  I really don't remember that many days that were overcast.  We finished the tramp and walked into Akaroa, stopping on the way to pick blackberries from the bushes.  We were a bit cold and got a hot chocolate to warm up and shared a bowl of potato and leek soup.  It was a good way to end our walk.  The Banks Peninsula Track would never be described as NZ's most beautiful or toughest or whatever, but I did enjoy it.  Valerie liked Akaroa and we wandered around town for a bit.  One thing she liked was that it is of French origins, not many towns in NZ have this distinction.

We got back to Christchurch and picked up our ballet tickets.  I noticed the name tag of the ticket agent.  It was the woman I had talked to, umm, maybe talk isn't the correct word, on the phone.  I said, "I'm Craig and we talked the other day....sorry about that one."  I hate apologizing, but occasionally it's the thing to do (though only occasionally).  The ballet was enjoyable and later on that evening we went to a club and danced for a few hours.  After that, we naturally had a hot chocolate.  I was really beginning to enjoy our hot chocolate ritual.  One thing I like about Valerie is that she can tramp in the rain without complaining and later in the evening go to a ballet.  She's a very cool person.

March 23-24
Only in New Zealand We took four rides to hitch along the coast from Christchurch to Oamaru.  One of the rides took us from Temuka to Timarau.  A father and daughter picked us up.  They usually couldn't come to an agreement over music, so they traded off.  This day the daughter had control and was listening to Diesel.  The father said he just learned to tolerate it.  He was a painter and had some paint cans in his trunk next to our packs and some paint got on one of my straps.  Not that it bothers me, I think of it as a souvenir.  Whenever I see the paint blotch, it brings me back to a pleasant time and makes me smile.

Things were pretty quiet when we reached Oamaru, as it was the evening before a holiday.  About the only thing we could find to eat was a meat pie from the last place open in town.  We did a little shopping.  This can be a real tribulation for me as Valerie always wanted me to try new foods and wouldn't tolerate my dried spaghetti routine.  Later we walked about 45 minutes to a stand high above the ocean to watch penguins come ashore for the evening.  There were two people already in the stand who told us that they had been there quite a while and hadn't seen a thing.  The eagle-eyed Valerie looks down at the water and says, "Oh, there's one right now."  Sure enough a penguin was coming out of the surf.  It was a bit distant and we couldn't see it that well, but it was a penguin.  As it started to get dark, Valerie and I hiked along a trail above the ocean back towards Oamaru.  We came out at a nesting area for little blue penguins.  These are the smallest of the penguins and are only about 35 cm. high (hence the "little" part of their name).  They would come out of the water and clamber up the rocks.  It's quite amazing that they could get up some of the rocks that they did.  They were quite comical as they waddled towards their nests.  I've seen penguins in nature shows, but they are even funnier in real life.  Earlier in the day we met a Kiwi who said, "I don't know why you want to see a penguin.  I think you'll be disappointed."  I told him, "Oh, I don't think so."  Penguins are cool!

 As we walked back towards Oamaru, a car stopped next to us.  It was Gary!  He noticed us because of my cycling cap.  It comes in handy for more than just a sun visor, you know.  He didn't have much time that evening, but invited us to go penguin watching and to his parent's house tomorrow.  Val and I got back to our hostel and topped of our evening with, what else, a hot chocolate.

The next morning we wandered down to the seashore and came across the place where we had seen the penguins.  There was a small gift shop with clothing in a penguin print, hundreds of the little guys crawling all over.  They had a pair of shorts in the penguin print.  I said, "Oh my, I'd love to have a pair of tights like those."  The woman said, "Well it's your lucky day.  You can get them at the Antarctic Center in Christchurch."  The motto of the trip was "Que sera sera,"  I never really had a plan for the future.  However, this had changed slightly as I knew that I must make it to Christchurch to buy a pair of penguin must be so!

It was a beautiful, sunny day and we walked along the beach.  Valerie walked ahead of me a bit as I collected a few rocks.  Later on I would polish these rocks and make them into necklaces.  When I sent one to her I wrote, "Val, do you remember in Oamaru how I was collecting stones as we walked along the beach...."  She seemed to like it.  Other than that we bummed around Oamaru.  We went to Michael O'Briens' bookbinding shop where he makes books by hand from equipment that looks like it's from another century, turns out that it really is from another century.  Both of us were impressed by his beautiful hand-made books.  Generally it was very quiet in Oamaru, as it was Otago Day.  We shared an ice cream cone, wandered, sat, wandered some more, and had a great time.

Later that evening Gary brought us penguin watching.  We did see a few, but it was getting dark.  We would have to wait a bit longer for the Perfect Penguin Panorama.  That evening Gary brought to his parent's house.  They were good hosts and made us a wonderful meal.  There were more courses in this meal than we had seen in a long, long time.  It was so nice to be in a home and to sleep in a regular bedroom for a change.  It wasn't just the food and the bed.  Rather it was the home environment that we both appreciated so much.

March 25-26
Stones of Moeraki Gary had to go to work in the freezerworks, a sheep slaughterhouse where it seems like half the people in the South Island work, so his mother drove us to the Moeraki boulders.  The Moeraki boulders are spherical rocks, which are only found in a few places in the world, primarily in NZ and the state of Utah in the U.S.  They are more numerous in Utah, where a large one might be 1/2 meter in diameter.  In NZ, while fewer of them, a 1/2 meter rock would be a small one.  In the U.S. they are called septarian nodules and I was quite familiar with them and I had to see them here.  I knew they were big, but I was still surprised when I actually saw them.  Some of them had split open, exposing the interior.  They looked very similar to the septarian nodules, only the scale was different.  I guess one could view them as pretty unimpressive, after all they just sit there.  However, to see two meter diameter rock spheres sitting there on the beach, is pretty odd.

From the boulders we hitched south towards Dunedin.  It took us one ride from a guy who edited a political journal.  He was very knowledgeable about the political system of the U.S. and was a Michael Moore TV Nation fan, so we talked at length.  As he was dropping us off, I said, "It was interesting to talk to you in that you are probably one in a 1000 Kiwis who could talk about such specific constitutional issues."  He said, "At first I didn't want to offend you, but it was nice to talk to you, the one in a 1000 Americans who knew their own constitution."  I told him I wasn't offended in that he was probably right.  I was noticing similarities and differences between our respective cultures.  I think the U.S. is a bit more extreme.  There is more wealth and more poverty.  There is more ostentatious materialism and the crime that the opposite conditions bring.  I think Kiwis are more modest in their wants.  NZ isn't quite as nutty as the U.S. and sometimes that might be a good thing.

The next day Valerie and I were in the kitchen of the Elm Lodge in Dunedin.  We saw a Japanese woman eating marmite.  I said, "You're the first outsider I've met who eats marmite.  What happened?"  She said, "That's what everybody asks.  This is good food."  I just nodded my head.  Val and I clowned around Dunedin, doing a little of this and that.  We ran into a vendor that we called Potato Woman.  She sold baked potatoes from a cart and played along with our games.  We sat in the Octagon and shared a baked potato.  Later I would take an orange that had gone bad and rolled it down the large hills of Dunedin.  Why did I do this?  When I was young, the neighborhood kids and I used to pick osage oranges (a large and very solid fruit) and roll them down hills at cars.  It seemed like the thing to do with an old orange.  We wrote a letter together to Rob.  Valerie wrote, "With the exception of rolling oranges into downtown Dunedin, I'm doing pretty well at keeping Craig behaved."

I'm not very big on tours, but I made an exception today going to the Otago Peninsula for wildlife viewing.  My two priorities were penguins and albatrosses.  Valerie and I went out to Tairoa Head where the albatrosses nested.  This is the only place in the world where they nest on anything other than an island in the middle of nowhere.  Albatross are really interesting birds in that they go to sea and do not return to land until they need to raise their young.  They might not touch land for over a year.  They can soar for hours and hours on the winds without flapping their wings.  The day was a bit cool, so I let the rest of the group go out while I put on my silly striped long underwear.  It was no more than a minute until I got out with the others.  Valerie asked me, "Did you see the albatrosses?"  I thought she was kidding until I looked at everyone else and saw them nodding their heads.  D'oh!  Not just one, but two royal albatross, the largest type with three meter wingspans, flew over.  As a consolation Val said, "I'll be sure to send you a picture."

Ah, yes, the dual nature of a penguin. It can be cute and cuddly one moment and then stern and vindictive if a sheep bothers it. This picture represents the dual nature of all of us. Ok, I admit it...I'm just yabbering again. On the way to see the penguins we walked down a beach where sea lions were hanging out.  There was a group of males doing what male sea lions do...I guess "Male Bonding" or something.  There were both mature and immature males.  The immature males still had some grace.  The mature males completely bloated up and no longer had a svelte form and weighed upwards of 400 kilos.  Hmmm...I wonder if there is some similarity with humans here?

We were in a blind and saw yellow-eyed penguins from no more than 20 meters away.  We had binoculars with us, so we could even see the yellow iris of their eyes.  It was pretty obvious how they got their name.  The penguins were molting and grooming each other, which was kind of neat.  The penguins come out of the water and rest on the hills just off the ocean, often sitting on a sheep trail.  The sheep would come down the trail and reached the penguin.  They would stop dead in their tracks, with several of them backing up on the trail.  If they tried to get by the penguin, it would peck at them and drive them back.  The lesson to be learned is: Don't Screw With A Penguin!  The sheep didn't think of going 1 or 2 meters up or down the hill and using a different track.  They obviously had the intelligence bred right out of them.  The penguins were really neat, I'm glad we went.  Penguins are so exotic and previously I have only been able to see them on a nature show, but finally I got to see them so close I could see color of their eyes.  This was one of the best parts of my trip.  Our Sacred Penguin Quest had finally been achieved.

March 27-29

Yellow Eyed PenguinWe to spend some time in the Catlins, the southeastern coastal area.  The Catlins are kind of isolated, so hitching would be difficult and we rented a car.  Valerie was uncomfortable driving on the left side of the road in a city, so I started out driving.  I did what every driver from a right hand-drive country did as I turned on the windshield wipers when I tried to use the turn signals.  It took a little time to get used to driving this way.  Left hand turns were particularly harrowing.  I cut a few people off at first, as their rules of the road are the opposite of what I'm used to.  By the way, if you know where the cartoon penguins in this chapter came from, you will qualify for one of those luxury prizes that I've talked about.  So, think hard.

Valerie and I stopped at Nugget Point.  Odett, the woman I met in Fox Glacier, had told me Nugget Point was the most beautiful place she had ever seen in her life.  I could see how a person would think that.  We were high above the ocean with jagged rocky spires coming out of the sea that marched into the distance.  We watched the seals swim next to the swaying kelp forests below. Seals are so much fun.  We did a few tracks and sat on a beach having lunch.  There's something about the Catlins that's different than other places.  Things are so much more relaxed.  When I look back, one of the things that I remember the most was the serenity.  No need to hurry, things will work out.

Valerie and I both enjoy cashews.  I would often buy some for the two of us and we would sit and nibble on them.  I bought some the previous night and was keeping them to surprise her.  We were hiking to Jack's Blowhole, which is a huge hole in the ground created by wave action.  We were crossing a large pasture with Valerie walking thirty meters behind me.  I was sneaking a few cashews as I was getting hungry.  I was going to break them out once we reached the blowhole.  I dropped one and didn't pick it up.  Later Valerie gave me the cashew and said, "You dropped this."  I can't believe that she managed to find the one cashew that I dropped in the middle a sheep pasture.  No wonder she was the first one to spot the penguins in Oamaru!

The next day we wandered around the Catlins.  We walked across a wonderful beach to a giant sea cave and sat on the hills above the ocean under a clear blue sky.  We also went to Curio Bay, which is an unusual petrified forest.  I've seen petrified forests that were better as far as the logs go, but no place with a setting like Curio Bay.  There are petrified logs and tree stumps all over a rock shelf just above the high tide line on the ocean under a bright, blue sky.  It was quite a contrast.

Sheep Jam! Later we drove to an isolated beach and sat quietly on the ocean.  On the way back we got caught in a sheep jam.  This is like a traffic jam, just that it involves sheep.  The farmer told Val, "Just drive through, they'll get out of the way."  So she started driving. Valerie found this funny and asked me to take a picture.  I was about to take the picture and she said, "Not through the windshield, get out the window."  I leaned out the window and was greeted by a hideous smell.  If you've ever smelled a thousand sheep butts simultaneously, you would understand.  I take the picture and say, "Val, you owe me."

I had been told that Riverton was a nice place so we continued our drive onto there.  That evening Valerie and I went out overlooking the water.  We sat and watched the sunset.  Sometimes we talked; sometimes we didn't need to.  That was best part of the whole day, just sitting together.  When I look back at the time we were in the Catlins, I get very nostalgic.  Sometimes when I see a map of this area, I get a pit in my stomach and want to go back so badly.  I don't know what it was about being in the Catlins, but I'm glad we were there together.

We weren't sure where we were going to be going, but we were supposed to have the car back that afternoon.  We drove through Tuatapere, "The Sausage Capital of New Zealand" and stopped and sat on the shores of Lake Manapouri with the mountains in the distance.  I knew that this would be the last time that I saw this lake.  I looked out over the water and mountains with mixed emotions.  It was combination of knowing that I wouldn't be back and euphoria over the good times that I experienced there.  We get to Te Anau and I dropped by the hostel for a minute to say hi to the folks there.  They said, "We knew you would return."  It turns out that they could see the future.  I didn't return to Te Anau on this trip, but I've decided that I will stop in NZ on my around the world trip for a few weeks to see a few people and do a track or two in Fiordlands.  So in the end, they're right...I will be back.  We stopped at a shop to get something to eat and then tried to leave, but the car battery was dead.  It took about two hours to get this fixed.  In the meantime it is getting later in the day and we are supposed to hitch to Christchurch that evening.

We arrived in Dunedin and the car rental place tried to charge us a higher rate than they were supposed to.  We argue about this and it gets to the point where I say, "Look, I'm not going to sign the credit card slip and that is that. I sat for hours with a broken car and now I have to start hitching to Christchurch two hours before it gets dark."  That finally convinced them and suddenly we all were friendly with each other.  I can be pretty stubborn when I set my mind to it.  This has served me well in life (I guess.... maybe... occasionally).

March 29-31
We hitched north out of Dunedin and gave Gary a call in Oamaru.  We rented the movie "Once Were Warriors" that so many people had recommended.  It certainly wasn't a happy movie, but I wasn't moved by it. That evening Valerie and I had a bit of a disagreement.  I couldn't sleep and stayed up late talking with Gary.  Then the movie started to have an effect on me and I was able to see why so many people told me I had to see it.  It's a pretty grim movie, but ends with a chance of hope.

Valerie wanted to see Mt. Cook, the highest mountain in NZ.  She had been near it three times, but clouds were always obscuring it. Gary asks us if he can come along.  We say sure as we like him and besides, we have a car to get there.  Once we arrived, Valerie finally got to see her quarry, as the day was sunny, warm, and clear.  It's an impressive mountain.  We did a short tramp up the Hooker Valley with Mt. Cook looming above us.  We reached the terminus of a glacier, which had calved several small icebergs into a lake.  I briefly considered swimming out to the iceberg for a picture, but this was glacial runoff no more than 200 meters away from its source.  Picture or not, I decided that this would just be too damn cold.  I've learned my lesson from cold water before.  Valerie met a Frenchman named Oliver.  She enjoyed talking to him, as there weren't many people that she could speak with in French.  Later on we all went to a bar and did what people do at a bar (well, except for me, as I don't drink).

Gary dropped us off north of Christchurch and we hitched into Kaikoura, a town known for its whale and dolphin watching.  I read that Kaikoura means, "to eat crayfish" and that's what Valerie and I did.  Crayfish is similar to lobster without the claws.  It isn't anything like the little crayfish in the U.S.  We went out to a very nice restaurant for an extra nice meal.  Valerie and I always wanted to have a special meal at least once and crayfish seemed to be in order.

April 1
That morning Valerie went swimming with dolphins.  Since I had swam with dolphins in Whangarei, I didn't go.  When Val got back her face was absolutely glowing.  She looked so happy that I should have probably gone.  Later we hitched to Christchurch.  We went out on the town until all hours, sharing a few hot chocolates here and there.  We grabbed a few free postcards and wrote to Rob to tell him how much fun we were having.  We both had a great time, but we also knew that our time together was coming to an end.  The next day Valerie was leaving for Asia where she would spend close to a year.

April 2
We got up and Valerie made breakfast.  I had gotten used to not only having someone make breakfast, but also someone to eat with too.  Naturally we had a hot chocolate for breakfast.  I sure was going to miss my drinking partner.  We went downtown to pick up mail and went out to the airport.  When I wasn't looking, Valerie slipped a little stuffed kiwi into my bag.  It now has an honored spot sitting on top of my computer monitor.  The time came to leave and we hugged goodbye.  It was very sad to say goodbye to my friend with whom I had so many good times.

I went to the Antarctic Center to pick up some penguin tights.  One pair was for me and I mailed the other pair to Valerie's home.  When she returned home, she said she really liked them.  I went back to town and wandered around, trying to keep my mind occupied.  I ran across Oliver and we went to a coffee shop, my treat as I wanted the company. I walked around Christchurch thinking about all the good times Valerie and I had together.  The sights of the Banks Peninsula, watching sunsets, penguins, talking, laughing, and sitting together.  I had as much fun with her as I ever had with anyone.

Later I gave Rob (of Christchurch) a call and went to his house.  It was nice to be in a home tonight with someone kind rather than a big city hostel, not knowing anyone.  He fed me well and more importantly, lent a sympathetic ear.  I really missed my Little Penguin Friend.