There are penguins in New Zealand, three species on North and South Island and another three on remote offshore islands. Now, I’ve seen the penguins in Edinburgh Zoo and, indeed, in other zoos around the world. I’ve stood with two toddlers on the dry side and watched as their dad, my other half, swam among the penguins with the dive club to clean the glass on the wet side. But a month in New Zealand – we would see penguins in the wild! Wouldn’t we?
Ah, a month in New Zealand! Escaping a chunk of British winter for southern hemishere sun. We spent Christmas morning at a deserted Glasgow Airport and paused on our way east for a couple of days in Bangkok. Bangkok was not deserted. It was noisy, colourful, smelly, hot, chaotic, tiring and so much fun. We had a boat trip round the Khlongs, ticked off palaces and temples, were hijacked by a tuk tuk driver and thrown out of the Oriental Hotel for inappropriate dress. Oh those orange shorts have much to answer for, son of mine.
On to Auckland and then Snells Beach, where we slept off the first stages of jet lag at Mahurangi Lodge B&B. Then we were off northwards, armed with maps and advice from our hosts, to Tutukaka and the Poor Knights, calling en route at the Leigh marine reserve, a holy grail of marine conservation. The Poor Knights Islands have been on my diving “must do” list since I first went underwater some forty years ago and here I was, with Iain and the boys, about to dive them together.
We had a lovely few days in Tutukaka. We saw fish, nudibranchs, sponges galore.
We saw Orcas, a blue shark and The Largest Seacave in the World.
We soon learned that New Zealand has, according to New Zealanders, the Largest/Smallest/Longest/Highest/Biggest/Oldest/Most of pretty much everything. Sweet as! We bought cheap body boards for the huge white sand beaches where the surf was pounding in, visited limestone caves jewelled with glow worms and learned how the European settlers managed to decimate the Kauri forests.
We marvelled at the tree ferns and did you know that New Zealand has around 200 species of fern? We saw pukeko and shags, shearwaters and oyster catchers, and listened to Tui singing. And one evening around New Year we went on a Little Blue Penguin hunt. Our dive guide had told us of a beach where, if we looked amongst the tree roots, we would find penguins roosting after they had waddled ashore at dusk. But sadly the tide was too high to get around a headland so we skimmed stones and enjoyed the sunset but saw no penguins.
Then we headed south, along with a large proportion of the New Zealand population who had spent the holidays up north. They say New Zealand is very like Scotland – we discovered it even has its own version of the A9 parking lot.
After a night in Auckland, in the EconoLodge (yes, it’s all in the name) we pitched up in Rotorua, with white water rafting top of the Must Do list. Rotorua smells of sulphur and its park in the centre of town has bubbling mud and steam rising from primordial, fern fringed pools.
We saw the geyser at Whakarewarewa and learnt a little about Maori culture. We ambled through a redwood forest, a fun, wet afternoon on the Kaituna River and wandered round the wildlife park at Rainbow Springs at night to see the Kiwi – slightly surreal, a small crowd speaking in hushed tones watching brown shadows grubbing through the leaf litter. So that was kiwis ticked off, but no penguins.
New Zealand being New Zealand and the home of bungee jumping, the testosterone endowed members of the party agreed a bungee jump had to be done. Aagh.We had already figured we couldn’t do everything in the time we had available, but this was an essential. So it was that, en route to Jackie and Nick at Waikanae Beach, we detoured to Gravity Canyon, a spectacular limestone gorge. Iain zipped along the gorge courtesy of a kilometre of zip wire while Tim leapt into the void with an elastic band tied to his ankles.
The sensible ones, Chris and I, stayed firmly on solid ground and watched. No penguins. And we didn’t see any penguins on the Kapiti Coast either, on our walk along a blustery beach or a bushwalk in the hills. Well you wouldn’t, would you?
And then suddenly we were in Wellington, waiting for a flight to Christchurch. We wandered round the beautiful harbour area which is full of sculptures of one sort or another and visited the fabulous Te Papa Museum where we were shaken about in the earthquake room and yes, you’ve guessed it, we saw penguins. But they were stuffed so they don’t count. Never mind, we’d see lots in South Island after we’d packed the boys off home, back to University. And that’s the next story.