I have officially been in New Zealand for one week! I can’t believe it has only been that long. It feels like we have already seen and done so much. Hiking? Check! Wine? Check! Exploring? Check! Seeing penguins? Check, check, and CHECK! Here’s a look at our first week on the other side of the world.
I arrived Saturday morning bright and early. Pip from Fulbright New Zealand was nice enough to meet me at the airport and take me to the hotel where we stayed before heading to the South Island. That first day, I took a much-needed shower and nap (20+ hours of travel will really take it out of you!). Then, I wandered around Wellington and explored the area where we’ll be living. When I became convinced I was getting sunburned, I headed back to the hotel and Elijah arrived shortly thereafter.
On Sunday, we did much of the same. We explored the Wellington waterfront (which is only 4 blocks from our apartment) and spent some time in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. There are many exhibits about the history of New Zealand, the culture, and the wildlife. We barely scratched the surface and look forward to going back. However, we had one important errand to run this day. We went and bought our New Zealand SIM cards. This proved to be less complicated than anticipated. We did learn that data in New Zealand is expensive. So, most plans don’t come with much data. As a result, we’ve been mostly staying on airplane mode as we travel around.
Monday morning, we headed to the airport to start a two-week trek around the South Island. I’ve realized that carry-on luggage is very different here. In the US, we try to cram as much as we can into our carry-on luggage and the carry-on space above and below our seats. Well here, almost all rollers get checked. Backpacks go in the overhead space and purses go underneath. Your two items cannot weight more than 7kg (15lb) combined. They weigh your bags, or at least they did on JetStar.
Our first stop was Dunedin, which is the second largest city on the South Island. We stayed for two nights in an Airbnb on the Otago Peninsula where we were surrounded by gorgeous views. We did several short hikes. Most of them ended on a gorgeous beach. We visited Larnach Castle which was built in the 1870’s by an entrepreneur and politician, William Larnach. While I had never heard of the Larnachs, I now feel strongly that someone should create a mini series about them. In short, when William Larnach’s first wife died, he married her sister. When she died, he manipulated his children into signing away their inheritances. He then married for a third time. However, that wife had an affair with his son. So, William Larnach killed himself within Parliament. Is that not a mini-series or what?
A highlight of Dunedin was visiting Penguin Place. It is a self-funded conservation reserve that protects and rehabilitates penguins. The yellow-eyed penguin is endangered, and its population is dwindling quickly. At the reserve, we saw 11 penguins in the hospital, several juvenile penguins, and several chicks. Most of them were in the hospital due to predator attacks. Sadly, some of them had been attacked by dogs when owners did not keep them on leashes as required by law in some areas.
We were also lucky enough to see two penguins in the wild at the conserve. One yellow-eyed penguin had “stayed home.” Our guide explained that penguins will do this after many consecutive days of hunting. When they stay home, they essentially stay on land resting for 12-14 hours. We also got to see little blue penguin chicks. The conserve builds boxes for the little blue penguins to safely nest. Some of the chicks were inside while we were there.
Finally, Elijah and I visited some World War II bunkers and walked up the steepest street in the world, Baldwin Street. The bunkers are just on the side of the road and completely free to walk into. As a result, they are full of graffiti. As for Baldwin Street, it was exhausting!
After leaving Dunedin, we drove south into a region called the Catlins. Here, there are many farms and it becomes very isolated. There was not always cell service and we had to watch the gas tank closely since gas stations were few and far between. We also quickly learned that there are very few places to eat in the Catlins, especially if you are me and try to stay away from gluten, dairy, and meat. The key word there was try. I did not succeed. At one point I was so hungry that I ordered the vegetable panini. It was two pieces of bread with cream cheese, more cheese melted on top, and a few bell peppers. The cashier looked at me and said, “You must be one of those healthy eaters!” Elijah and I laughed to ourselves, since that sandwich was a major cheat meal compared to my normal eating habits. That tells you something about the area that cheese on cheese on bread is considered healthy. In another place, Elijah ordered a hot dog. It came on a stick and fried like a corn dog. After that, I started noticing “hot dog on a stick” on several menus.
The highlight of the Catlins was doing a farm stay. Karl and Melanie, the owners, spent a lot of time showing us around and letting us experience farm life. Melanie drove us all around the farm showing us the gorgeous views from their property. In fact, the last scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was filmed there. She also took us to meet some of their “pets.” One of the calves was very taken with Elijah (meanwhile it stepped on my toe), but I got to hold a lamb! Karl let us come along while he worked, and “help” move sheep. It was so fun being a part of the process and seeing the sheep dogs at work. Even their kids showed us around. Their sons taught Elijah how to play cricket. They didn’t think he did a good job bowling the ball, though. He kept throwing it too much like a baseball.
Melanie and Karl also told me about the schools in their area and their personal philosophy on education. The local school has a total of 120 kids. Karl said there were 2-3 kids per class. After year 9, the kids went to boarding school. Karl explained that this gave their kids an opportunity to meet and socialize with a greater variety of peers from different areas. Melanie told me that they are trying to teach their children to be creative, out-of-the-box thinkers. As technology advances, many jobs may disappear. They encourage their kids to consider learning trades or becoming entrepreneurs. She told me that she expected her kids to earn their spending money, because she felt hard work and entrepreneurship were important skills to learn. For example, their 10 and 12-year-old sons grow swedes and sell them. Apparently, they made close to $300 last year. Her 14 year old had cleaned and prepared our room by herself to make $25. It made me so happy witnessing parents teaching their children these skills. I don’t think Melanie and Karl’s kids will be labeled entitled any time soon!
The Catlins are full of short hikes leading to gorgeous waterfalls or beaches. Many of them are within a rainforest. One of the most intriguing hikes we did was to Cathedral Caves. They are some of the longest sea caves in the world and can only be accessed at low tide.
Finally, we went to Curio Bay. Cuiro Bay is a petrified forest. The wood is about 180 million years old and is a relic from the Jurassic period. Elijah and I were shocked that you are allowed to walk on the forest and touch the wood. If this forest existed in the USA, it would most likely be protected from the wear and tear of visitors. However, this doesn’t seem to be as much of a concern here (remember the World War II bunkers were unmanned and free for all to enter). While at Curio Bay, a yellow-eyed penguin came home! That’s right. We saw a THIRD penguin in the wild. We were not allowed to get too close, because they are extremely shy and will not go feed their chicks if they feel intimidated. We stayed and watched him through binoculars for a long time, though. We saw him walk, swim, and hop up rocks. I didn’t realize that penguins look a lot like ducks when they are swimming.
After Curio Bay, we drove up to Invercargill for the night, and then onto Te Anau and Fiordland. We have already done some exciting things here, but I’ll save those for a later blog post. For now, it’s time to go explore more!