Invercargill is the unloved, red-headed stepchild of New Zealand. Told of travel plans that include the city, people assume a pitying, patronizing expression and shake their heads slowly as they say in a low, conspiratorial voice, “Now, that’s the one place I’ve heard you can just skip.” Well, I HAD to drive through there to get to PenguinTown (actual name: Curio Bay), so I was stuck, and I am here to tell you, it wasn’t that bad. There were still very charming architectural examples…
… and while the town was cold and damp as a Scottish September, even on the [summer] evening I visited, it had several lively pubs and upscale cocktail joints; a huge half-wild, half-cultivated park; and a free museum showcasing the dinosaur-era reptile unique to New Zealand, the tuatara, and was generally not at all objectionable.
However – the area surrounding the city? – bleh. Unrelentingly monotonous brownish flatlands of — I don’t know, cabbages? It seemed nothing pretty or tasty could possibly be cultivated on those dreary, endless fields, but growing something they were indeed (probably something bland, starchy, and with a touch of okra-esque sliminess). It put me in mind of the interminable, unremarkable agricultural flatness around Bakersfield, California, or the Texas panhandle, if you swap oil derricks for farms.
Since penguins are sighted only at dawn and dusk (and I was harboring vague notions of touring/sampling the local microbrewery before zipping off to see the penguins) I had an entire day to kill in Invercargill, which, despite its inoffensiveness, was still a rather a sleepy and unexciting place, so I allocated the day to doing database maintenance for my paid job and catching up some of the blog. As is my wont, I’d parked at the southern edge of the park to work, which turned out to also be where the free Southland museum was located too. When a loo break was warranted, I hit the museum and paid a visit to Henry, the 100-some year old tuatara who apparently only recently relinquished his bachelor ways and started procreating, and his assorted offspring/cellmates.
The tuatara tribe is housed a series of room-sized terrariums that form an outer museum wall, so they get plenty of natural light, and sprinklers and heaters maintain the environment to optimize the comfort of the guests. These little critters (not taxonomically lizards, interestingly), unchanged from their last evolutionary bump around 225 million years ago, are about a third the size of a housecat – imagine a petite iguana.
Despite their long lives, a posted sign explained they have a no-nonsense approach to dating that I must admit to admiring for its purposeful clarity and brevity:
During courtship the male displays himself by inflating his trunk and throat… A receptive female will present herself for courtship. If the female is impressed by the showing male she nods her head and copulation occurs instantly.
The museum was pretty good, especially for being free: it had exhibits on Burt Munro, the famous motorcycling Kiwi speed demon, world-record holder, and Invercargill native who modified his 1920s Indian cycle—original max velocity off the production line of 55 mph—to reach speeds as high as 205 mph, racing on the Utah salt flats; Maori artifacts, including a hand-carved waka (canoe) and some seriously evil-looking weapons primarily of the skull-splitting variety; recreated Victorian-era house interiors (busy patterns on every surface) complete with costumed dummies (how did the women manage to walk in all those clothes?? like wearing the entire drapery content of an average living room); and an exhibit on [brave and/or totally brazen] attempts to travel to and/or settle in the sub-Antarctic islands south of New Zealand’s three main islands. This geographic area is so dangerous with so many shipwrecks occurring that they started building little huts in random places stocked with supplies and clothing to increase the chances that washed up survivors would be able to subsist ‘til rescue arrived. Most folks still perished from starvation or exposure after suffering weeks of utter despair and loneliness in this inhospitable environment; particularly poignant were the displays of actual panels from these huts with the forlorn carvings of the stranded gouged into the wooden slats.
What with work, blogging, and museum-going, I had to scrap my brewery plans and still left later than intended to drive the hour-ish east to the penguin site. Sunset missed would mean NO penguins – the entire reason I’d come this far south – so I hoofed it aggressively to my destination. Successfully arrived, just a little over a half hour late, I slapped on every clothing layer I could get my hands on to guard against the damp chilly air and coastal winds, and joined the three other tourists huddled on the spiky rock shore to await the hopefully impending arrival of the flubbery little birds. A ranger stood watch to make sure eager tourists didn’t get too close and spook the penguins, who come back ashore in the evening to feed their chicks. Momma scared off = no food for chicks, numerous signs warned.
We sat. And waited. Waves crashed, wind blew, fingers went numb, as did cold red noses. And then there was a wriggling in a shallow pool and *POP* out came a pudgy little yellow-eyed penguin (YEP for short)—the world’s rarest—from the water. Followed by a second penguin!
A solid twenty minutes of grooming, feather fluffing, stretching, and yawning ensued, interspersed with some scratching.
Biting coastal winds continued to blow; tourists stealthily rearranged themselves to get closer to the oblivious photographic model…
And then, grooming requirements apparently satisfied, the penguin hopped and waddled cutely from rock to rock, wended its way into the coastal shrubs, and then —- all was quiet again. With the light fading fast and another hour’s drive ahead of me to my evening destination of Owaka (and guilt over not making my hosts stay up too late to check me in) I debated leaving and slowly made my way toward the beach-stair exit when I caught sight of one of the other tourists motioning frantically to me. Another YEP had popped out of the water just behind me, wayyyy closer than the DOC regulations stipulated (supposed to stay several car lengths away), and I realized with horror I was also standing directly between it and its nest (and presumably hungry chick!)
It is difficult to scuttle hastily along mossy rocks without startling an importunately close penguin or falling on one’s own clumsy ass, but did I manage to extricate myself safely to a respectable distance away, and watched the entire groom-stretch-eventual hop routine once more.
After this I was pretty well penguined out and the tourist group had both expanded and gotten aggressive enough closing around the penguin for better pictures –flagrantly and completely blocking chick and nest!– to prompt the petite female ranger to go politely herd them away, so I headed to my holiday park site.