Seals, Penguins, and Koalas, Oh My!

Anyone who knows me knows that I love animals. I especially enjoy seeing animals in the wild. While we’re traveling, whenever we get the chance, we take advantage of the chance to see the wildlife. I didn’t really expect to see any animals so soon, but one day when we were swimming in Waimea Bay in Hawaii a sea turtle swam within ten feet of me. Another swimmer saw it and warned me that since they’re protected, legally I had to keep a distance of 100 feet. I didn’t try to get any closer, but somebody ought to tell the turtles that law, since they just swim up around the humans. Also in Hawaii, we hiked up to Ka’ena Point, which is the northwestern tip of O’ahu, for the chance to see an endangered Hawaiian monk seal. There are only about 1300 remaining in the wild. We saw plenty of nesting shearwaters, but by the time we reached the beach, we hadn’t seen any seals yet. We sat down and gazed out at the rocks and the beautiful blue ocean. After about a minute, one of the rocks moved and turned its face to look at us. Jackpot! A seal. I didn’t have my camera, though, so I didn’t get a picture.  It just goes to show you that patience pays.

Further on in our trip, I was thrilled to learn that in Kaikoura, New Zealand, there are several colonies of NZ fur seals. They hang out on the beach and relax in the sun, and they’re used to having people come by and gawk at them. They’re not endangered at all- we easily saw upwards of a hundred. For $90, you can even swim with them for one hour, through a outfit called Seal Swim. Next time! However, I was happy enough just to watch the seals on the beach. I think they know that photographers have their cameras ready, because one of them struck this pose:

A seal suns itself

Australia offers plenty of chances to see animals. There are myriad zoos housing Australian animals, usually featuring the opportunity to pet or hold a koala or kangaroo. If you’re dying to hold a koala, you have to go to the state of Queensland, because that’s the only place it’s legal. If you’re happy with simply petting one of the little guys, you can go anywhere. We really liked the Hunter Valley Zoo, because it was so small and intimate. It’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s a bit hard to get there. On the other hand, that means it’s not very crowded, so no waiting to pet the kangaroos! There are only a few dozen animals, including Australian animals, birds, monkeys, and farm animals, but that was fine for us. We can see tigers and bears in zoos at home. We spent a few hours there, feeding and petting the kangaroos, koalas, and wombats. Interesting fact: Kangaroos are MUCH softer than koalas.

We pet Buzzer the koala

For the ultimate animal experience, you can’t go any further than Phillip Island. Just off the coast near Melbourne, PI has seal colonies, resident penguins, and a wildlife preserve with koalas, wallabies, birds, and echidnas (supposedly.) Inside the preserve is the Koala Conservation Centre, which does not allow koala petting, but visitors are allowed to get fairly close to the trees where the koalas sleep and eat. It’s summer now, so the joeys are out of their mother’s pouches, and we saw one on its mother’s back and one off on its own. Too cute! The seals- over 10,000 of them- live off the coast on the Seal Rocks, so in order to see them we had to either take a boat tour ($67) or content ourselves with viewing them on a camera. We drove over to the Nobbies, at the tip of the island, and went inside the Nobbies Visitor Centre to see the seal-cams. Unfortunately, they are not free- but fortunately, we happened to be there at the same time a tour was coming through, and the tour guide put a few dollars into the machine, and we loitered nearby to catch a glimpse of the seals. It really didn’t feel any different than watching seals on a nature show, so I’m glad we didn’t pay for it.

The #1 reason we went to PI, though, was to see the penguins, and this did not disappoint. While walking around the Nobbies, we saw a few penguins in their burrows, thus providing us with a preview of the Penguin Parade we were planning to see.

A penguin hides under the boardwalk at The Nobbies

The penguins on PI are called little penguins, formerly known as fairy penguins, and they are only about 12 inches tall. There are thousands of them on PI, and they used to make their nests all around the coast, but unfortunately their habitats have now been destroyed in all but one place on the island. Penguin males and females take turns going fishing and taking care of their chicks. When they go fishing, they are gone for a few days at a time. They come back at dusk, in several battalions of several dozen penguins each- this is the part dubbed the Penguin Parade. As soon as they’ve arrived, their mates and chicks come out from their burrows as if to say “Welcome back!” and the chicks beg for food. There have been quite a few twins this year, more than usual, so naturally the siblings fight over who gets to eat first. They all squawk, wave their flippers, and generally carry on. It’s hilarious.

They're not kidding!

There are, of course, quite a few rules at Penguin Parade: no photographs, no touching the penguins, and above all, check under your car before you leave. Penguins have been nesting here for who knows how long, and the (relatively) new arrival of the parking lot still confounds some of them. The rangers try to coax them to nest closer to the dunes and away from the cars, but there are a stubborn few who continue to burrow in the parking lot area. So when visitors depart, they are asked to check under their cars in case a penguin is hiding under there. This was so funny to me and Bob that we were joking about it as we walked back to the car, but as we got closer, the thought of getting inside a nice warm car took over and we went to open the doors without checking. A man nearby called over to us to warn us that he had seen a penguin in this very lot, and we had better check. I laid down on my stomach, and there, smack in the center between the two front tires, was a tiny, scared penguin. This of course attracted a lot of attention, and spectators gathered around, trying to take pictures. Thankfully, a ranger came by pretty quickly- I think someone had already alerted him- and helped us to get the little guy out. Bob had to back up very slowly while everyone else watched the penguin to make sure it wouldn’t dart to the right or left. As soon as we were clear, we all breathed sighs of relief, and the penguin ran to hide under another car. (They really hate being exposed, it makes them feel insecure.) The ranger radioed to another ranger, saying “We’ve got a serial car-hider.” He said he would stay in the lot until all the cars had departed, to ensure the penguin stayed safe. Let this be a lesson to anyone going to the Penguin Parade: the rangers are not joking when they say penguins like to hide under cars, and please don’t forget to check!


New Zealand: Three Favorite Things


When we come home after travelling, a lot of people ask us “How was your trip?” However, most people don’t want to hear any answer longer than “Great!” It’s disappointing to not be able to share details of a trip, but at the same time I don’t want to bore anyone. So in order to sum up our time in New Zealand, we bring you a handy list of the best things we saw/did/ate! They are in order, sort of.

Three Favourite Scenic Spots:

  1. Lake Pukaki- nothing more needs to be said
  2. Tongariro National Park- especially the Red Crater, Emerald Lakes, and Blue Lake, which can only be accessed on foot (or seen from the air by taking a scenic flight)
  3. Kaikoura- the view of the Seaward Kaikoura Mountains rising above the blue sea

Three Favourite Attractions:

  1. Fox Glacier- this could also go under scenic spots, but just looking at it isn’t that interesting. Taking a guided hike and walking on it is much more interesting
  2. Marlborough wineries
  3. Auckland Museum- we thought it was better organized than Te Papa

Meat pies- yum, yum

Three Favourite Foods

  1. Hokey Pokey ice cream
  2. Meat pies
  3. NZ cheeses

Three Favourite Animals:

  1. Kiwis- no, we did not see one in the wild, as we had hoped; but we did hear them screeching in the middle of the night in Hokitika
  2. Seals- easy to spot, and they like to pose for photographers
  3. Glowworms- actually the larvae of a certain kind of fly. In Hokitika, you can see them for free, just 1km north of town. They look like constellations when they’re all lit up

Six Great Things to Do in Rotorua for Free

On the way to Rotorua from Auckland, I had some brochures and my guidebook out and I was reading up on the city we were soon to arrive in. Every single attraction- geothermal reserves, wildlife parks, even the sheep show at the Agrodome- charges an exorbitant entrance fee, between NZ$25-30 per adult. The newish Te Puia, which is home to the Maori Arts and Crafts Instituate and Whakarewarewa geothermal valley, charges $43! Nothing seemed to be free except for gazing out at Lake Rotorua. I resigned myself to paying the high prices and told Bob, “We’d better just pick one thing, so we don’t end up spending too much money.” We had to. There was nothing else to do in Rotorua, right?

Wrong. There is plenty of free stuff to do, and the only money we ended up spending in Rotorua was on meals. Our couchsurfer host, Bheema, gave us most of this advice, but some things we found on our own. He had lived in Rotorua for a year, if I remember correctly, but is allergic to paying for fun. We were so lucky to be staying with him, but we know not every visitor to the Rotorua area can visit his house. Here are his (and our) top things to see and do:

  1. Tamatekapua Marae/ St. Faith’s Anglican Church (Ohinemutu) -this is a working marae, so I don’t think visitors are allowed inside, but it’s still wonderful to look at from the outside. Visitors are welcome inside St. Faith’s, which is an Anglican church built in the early settlement years. The strong Maori decorative influence inside is a must-see. Don’t forget to check out the stained-glass window of Jesus walking on Lake Rotorua! The fascinating graveyard out back is the final resting place of many of the first Maori converts in the area, as well as missionaries who came out to NZ and never went home. Bonus: while walking around the area, you’ll see lots of tiny, bubbling springs. Many are simply in resident’s front yards or along the side of the road. Check if they’re hot!

    Tamatekapua Marae

  2. Pohutu Geyser -I know, you want to see a geyser. And Pohutu, which is inside the Te Puia complex, is one of the most reliable, going off 10-15 times per day. If you don’t want to pay for Te Puia but do want to see a geyser, you can. It’s easiest if you have a car. Drive south on Fenton Street, past several motels, until the road curves right and there is a parking lot right in front of you. That’s Pohutu. If the geyser’s going off, you’ll be able to see the steam from a kilometer or two away. Park in that parking lot and look through the fence. You’ll be able to see the entire geyser.
  3. Government Gardens Park, War Memorial Park -Parks are always good for a stroll, and both of these parks have lakefront views. Government Gardens has, as you might have guessed, lovely gardens. The playgrounds are nice too, especially in War Memorial Park.

    Sulphur Flats

  4. Sulphur Flats -not far from Government Gardens lie the Sulphur Flats, an area that’s particularly geothermically active. There are walking tracks running through, and (though the signs say not to) it’s possible to walk a few meters off the track and check out those bubbling hot mudholes. I know I probably shouldn’t recommend that kind of thing (just asking for a lawsuit) but they’re not that big and you’d have to be really determined to fall in. The tracks are not that long, you could just as easily spend 5 minutes or one hour here. It all depends on how long you can stand that eggy smell!

5.   Kerosene Creek -speaking of smells, this creek is not so eggy but truly smells of kerosene. It’s heated geothermically, and has a temperature similar to bathwater. It’s great for a swim. To get there, drive out of Rotorua on SH5 to Taupo. Just before Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, there is a road called Old Wai-O-Tapu Road. Turn left, and a short way down that road you’ll see signs and a parking lot for Kerosene Creek. Nearby, you’ll also see signs for Rainbow Mountain; it’s definitely worth walking 10 minutes to the lookout.

6.   Lake Okataina -this lovely lake has the remains of a Maori pa, or fortified hill site, as well as several walking tracks around the lake and the pa. There are several different tracks, ranging in length from a few kilometers to 22. To get there from Rotorua, head towards the airport on SH30. Pass the airport and a Shell station, then take a right (staying on 30) heading towards Whakatane. Pass Hauparu Bay and go to Ruato Bay, on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. When the lake comes into view, you will see a sign for Lake Okataina- 7km. Turn right and follow this road to the end. It takes about 20 minutes to walk up to the pa and you could easily spend half an hour to an hour investigating the area. There are a lot of dug-out areas that were obviously used for storage; signs on the pa suggest that it was for earthenware, but we didn’t see any.

Lake Okataina pa

Above all, enjoy yourself! Rotorua is an interesting place to while away a few days, and it needn’t break the bank.

The Most Beautiful Place I’ve Ever Seen

Today we had planned to drive to Mt. Cook, which is not very far from the west coast but can only be accessed from the south. From the main highway we turned off at Twizel, prepared to drive 50km each way just to see this majestic mountain. Luckily it was a fairly clear day, so as soon as we turned onto the access road, there it loomed ahead of us. We pulled off the road to another scenic lookout at a body of water that turned out to be Lake Pukaki. Most people (there were a few other people there) were  simply taking photos from the carpark, but we walked down to the lake and sat by the shore. I told Bob, “If I died now, I would die happy.” It was that gorgeous- and no one was there because they’d all stayed in the carpark. Seriously- it was only a 5-minute walk down the hill to the lake’s edge, and the view was so much better. We decided that we didn’t really want to drive to Mt. Cook after all, because we could already see it, and we couldn’t possibly imagine a better site to view it from than Lake Pukaki. This turned out to be the highlight of the west coast tour- the glacier was great, of course, but it’s so much more interesting to find something unexpected.

Lake Pukaki and the Southern Alps

Glacier Hiking

Today was the day of our “splurge” activity: we paid $149 each for an all-day glacier hike on Fox Glacier. Activities in NZ tend to be pretty expensive ($200 for a tandem skydive, for example; and it’s all over in about a minute) so we decided we could do just one expensive activity. When we were planning to go to Milford Sound, we thought we’d take a scenic cruise, but that has since been nixed from the itinerary so we decided instead to do a glacier hike. It’s pricey, yes; but we felt it offered the most bang for our buck, since it was an all-day experience. There are only two companies running glacier hikes: one for Franz Josef and one for Fox Glacier. Our friend’s dad recommended Franz Josef Glacier Guides, based on a great half-day hike he had done. However, the tours were slightly cheaper on Fox, so we settled on Fox Glacier Guiding. It took about seven hours from departure to return, and four and a half hours were spent on the ice. Everything was included: waterproof jackets, hats, mittens, thick socks, hiking boots, crampons for walking on ice, backpacks (but not lunch!) Our guide was excellent, which always helps. It is possible to drive to a nearby carpark and simply walk to a viewing platform, but I would recommend taking the tour. It’s so different from anything I have ever done and it’s impossible to appreciate the scale until you’re actually walking on the glacier.

A South Island Road Trip

Our last leg of our New Zealand journey is a loop that takes us from Christchurch to the west coast via Arthur’s Pass, south along the coast to Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, south to Wanaka, and back up north via Lindis Pass and Lake Tekapo. We have four days to complete this loop, which means we’ll drive a few hours every morning and take the rest of the time to enjoy the NZ countryside.

Investigating wildflowers, Arthur's Pass

The most wonderful thing about driving in New Zealand is that someone has thoughtfully placed gravelly areas every few kilometres or so, where you can park your car and get out for a few minutes to enjoy the great views (which are everywhere.)

Usually, when we get out of the car, we’re all alone, and we think to ourselves, “If this were in the US, it would be so crowded.” Here in the South Island, though, it’s just us and the occasional campervan.