Monday, January 21, 2008

On My Own

Dunedin (Jan. 3 - Jan. 6)

I started in Dunedin. It wasn't that exciting. The town was dead. The people in my hostel kept to themselves. And I was still adjusting to a more solitary lifestyle. I met a man on the bus ride from Christchurch to Dunedin. His name was Tom and he had just moved back to New Zealand after spending about 20 years in San Francisco. He was really friendly and adamant about showing me around Dunedin. Once we arrived in the city, I got the low-down on good jazz bars, a little historical background, and an invitation to stay at his ranch. I didn't accept the invitation, partly because I had already booked a hostel for 3 nights, but mostly because staying with a stranger alone in his house made me a little nervous. My declination didn't deter him. He gave me his phone number and email and insisted I call if I needed anything. Anything at all.

The first full day I spent in Dunedin, I did what I typically do in any new city: I became acquainted with the city's layout and found the botanical gardens. I spent a few hours in the gardens reading "A Thousand Splendid Suns". Actually I spend most of my time in Dunedin reading "A Thousand Splendid Suns." Whenever I had extra time (which was often) I found some green space in the city and opened my book. I couldn't put it down; no matter how disturbing the story became I was compelled to continue reading.

I scheduled a wildlife tour for the afternoon/evening on that first day. Dunedin is at the base of the Otago Peninsula, which is famous for its native fauna: albatross, fur seal colonies, blue penguins (smallest species of penguin in the world), and yellow-eyed penguins. I can't remember exactly why I chose to visit Dunedin, but I'm sure the wide array of wildlife was one of the main reasons. The tour was impressive. Longer and more intimate than I expected. Plus they picked me up from my hostel - transportation is a constant dilemma since I hate spending money.

We started at the Royal Albatross center on Taiaroa head - the only mainland albatross breeding colony worldwide. The birds were spectacular. The first ten minutes was filled with seagulls and shags. But once an albatross began to fly, it demanded your immediate attention. Their wings span up to 3 meters and they glide effortlessly through the sky, never once flapping their wings. I didn't get any pictures...once we spotted an albatross I couldn't take my eyes off of it long enough to take out my camera.

After observing the albatross and checking out the small museum we loaded into the tour shuttle and drove to the other side of the peninsula. We parked on the edge of a farmer's land and walked down the side of a steep hill toward the water. We all squeezed into a small wooden hideout and looked down. Directly below us, not more than 5 meters, was a fur seal colony. There were pups playing in pools, adults lounging on the rocks, and others trying to escape the pounding waves and seek refuge in the rock outcrops.

Leaving the seals, we went in search of yellow-eyed penguins. Walking down the other side of the steep hill, we headed toward a secluded beach. The penguins do not nest on the beach, but instead prefer the protection that high grasses provide. Walking through the grasses to the beach we passed two penguins. They let us get so close, and we stood about a meter away, taking pictures - not me, my camera batteries died and I didn't have a spare set. Dumb. We continued on the beach and up to a few wooden hideouts. Occasionally we would see a penguin waddling right next to a sheep, who continued grazing unaffected by the incongruity of the situation. Those sheep don't know how good they have it - grazing on spectacular landscapes, chilling with penguins, eating, sleeping....

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