The absolute last bus ride for this trip was the one we took today from Queenstown to Dunedin. Five and a half hours on the bus with one stop for coffee, lunch, and a bathroom break. Grueling, but the scenery did not disappoint us at all, once again keeping us glued to the window. Ron kept mentioning that we arrive at 12:30pm and had a wildlife tour booked for 3:30pm. Although he repeated this multiple times both in Budapest and as we traveled, the information sat on the surface of my thinking like oil sits on own water, never mixing.
When we arrived in Dunedin, the hostel turned out to be farther than we wanted to walk with suitcases. Dunedin is so hilly, laying claim to having the world’s steepest street; the city makes San Francisco look like Iowa, flat as a pancake. My idea of fun has never included carting luggage up mountains, but then again I am not into sporty events. TAXI!! The taxi must charge by the hill. We were shocked at the cost/distance ratio, but again the hills are significant, so it was that or hitchhike.
Our room was ready upon our arrival, so we had time to stretch before climbing into another motor vehicle. Good thing, because the information that really did not penetrate was the fact that the tour was for 6 hours. They will get us at 3:20pm and not return us until 9:30pm. What seemed highly unlikely was that Ron planned this. He who is against all forms confinement made these plans, booked and paid for them before we left Europe. What has gotten into this man? He was like a little kid, really looking forward to this. I could go either way. Seals and penguins are fun, but we have seen both in South Africa multiple times, Australia, and Tierra del Fuego at the tip of Argentina. Could these seals and penguins be that much different?
Ride around, ride around, picking up others along the way really cuts into the “tour” time. When a tour operator tells you this is an 8 hour tour, you have to cut off an hour for picking everyone up and an hour for letting everyone off at the end of the day. During this ride around, one of the two guides informs us that they hope we have good shoes, because we are going to have to do some climbing up and down steep hills. Whoa, Buster! Hold it right there. Now that we are in the van is not the time to tell us that we needed good hiking/climbing shoes. I look at Ron and ask him “Did you know we were supposed to have good hiking shoes?” I am still not sure whether or not I believe him, but he said “TripAdvisor said to have comfortable shoes.” We are both wearing Crocs, which are fabulous for everyday wear walking. They are not suitable for mountain climbing, at least not the style I brought with me.
Panic starts to set in. Not only do I not have appropriate shoes, we have been warned that hiking is involved. I take to hiking like a duck takes to quicksand. No one that knows me well has ever associated me with heavy physical exertion for work or for fun. Everyone who knows me well knows that I believe the devil is behind that E word (whisper it – exercise). Though I may be build like a Mack truck, I don’t have any horsepower; I can’t even claim pony power. I am a thinker, not a do-er. This is the main reason I don’t watch any sports either. All of that exertion being displayed just wears me out.
Tim, one of our guides is at the front of a twenty-three person van shouting out “If anyone thinks they may have problems with this ‘walk’ let us know now.” We are sitting in the absolute last seat in the back of the van. Like I am going to announce to the masses that I am an exercise wimp, who is not certain about survival during this field trip; I think not. The penguins and seals in all other countries had the decency not to make us go over hill and dale to view them. They were all within easy walking distance. How rude New Zealand wild life is.
We drive through a sheep ranch to finally reach this cliff where Mexican cliff divers could practice from it is so high. Masses of sheep are all around us, but there are gates to keep them from throwing themselves to the rocks and waters below. They are all going baaaaaaa in unison. All I hear is a chorus of BAAAAAAAD as in bad news for you bucko. This is not the event you have been living for. With great stoicism, I follow the leader, thinking “This is not so bad.” However, what goes down, in this case must come up again and since no escalator magically appeared, I am in big trouble. Glacier experiences are rushing past my eyes. I envision a scarlet letter on my chest, a big S for Slug. Snap, snap, snap, the guide is speaking, but I am busy getting all of the pictures I think I will ever want, need, or care to have. When he takes a breath, I inform him I am getting a head start on the return journey. It seemed likely that even with a twenty minute head start; the tail end of the group could still by-pass me on their return. Wow, I made it up before they did. Pat me on the back. It only two times to stop to gasp for air. This outdoor activity must be improving my breathing.
The group finally returns. Gosh, they were so slow getting back. One of the guides unlocks the van, causing a knee-jerk reaction for me to climb in. He stops me, telling me he only needed a hat, but we were not ready to go yet. The Yellow-Eyed penguins were down another cliff on the opposite side of the car park. Near them, but not living with them were the Blue penguins. What a rainbow assortment of penguins they have here. What the hell, can’t they just get along with the seals congregating in one viewing area? Sean, the second guide looks at me and says, this hill is not as steep a slope, so it should be easier for you. With some bravado I started down the hill. It was like descending the seven layers of hell, but by level 4, ultimate and everlasting misery, I had had enough. Not only were there 3 more layers to descend, but what I didn’t know at the time was that then a trek followed covering another mile or more. Yellow-eyed penguins are only found here in New Zealand. Could I live without ever seeing yellow-eyed penguins? You bet I can. Prompting Ron to continue, I was standing on the hill in a 45 degree angle now certain whether which direction I was going fall in. It was either going to be flat on my face or my ass.
Climbing back up was worse the second time around. Ten steps, stop, rest, gasp for air, think about whether or not my travel insurance covers cremations or not. Ten more steps, same routine, but wonder if I have told Ron where I hid the travel cash. Finally reaching the top of the hill, there is a small herd of sheep waiting to greet me. They all look up, stare at me and flee like they had a premonition I was a butcher or one of THOSE types of shepherds, if you get my drift.
I am up at the van waiting for the others, thinking how long could they possibly be. Hmm…I seem to remember one of the guides saying something about us being there for 2 ½ hours. That was forty-five minutes ago. The sun was shining, but the wind was blowing furiously. If I stayed warm in the sun, the wind was pushing me around like a bully on the playground. A shove in the back with an “I dare you. What are you going to do about it?” There were enough boulders that I was able to make a makeshift seat with the sun shining, but with a smidgen of shelter from the wind. It was so windy that one of the guides left with brown hair only to return with it white. He said he could see the color flying into the air as the wind blew it out of each hair shaft.
So it is me and the sheep and I have to pee. Sean, the guide announced we could leave what we wanted on the van since he would lock it up. He said it is only us and the sheep up here and the sheep are fairly honest. The last I looked, the group was down the mountain and about ¼ mile down the beach. With my telescopic lens on my camera at the highest power, they still looked like ants marching to their hill. No one around, I didn’t think the sheep were going to care if I peed in front of them. Checking to make sure the group is not returning in some unexpected direction, I finally decide it is okay. Half-way through the euphoric I have been waiting too long to pee pee, two new tour groups show up out of nowhere. From the dance I did, if they were not paying full attention, they could very well have thought they caught me in the act being baaaaaad in public. Regardless, I kept a low profile behind the van.
When my group returned forty-five minutes later, it was like having angelic visitations. There is nothing I wanted more than to get out of there. Ron loved the Yellow-eyed penguins; they never had any sighting of the Blue penguins that burrow in the ground, but did not make a showing. All of this fun, yet the tour was still not over. There was still a visit the albatross research center to see albatross. Arriving at the center fifteen minutes before closing was perfect. See the center, read the info, witness an albatross flying around, get on the van and go away, far away where there is less wind. We close the center, but Sean has a lecture to give on the albatross outside on the cliff with 50 mile an hour winds blowing us around as if we were tottering bowling pins during an earthquake. After twenty minutes, Sean announces that Tim will unlock the van for those of us freezing and the rest can stay with him to listen to the rest of his monologue. He is left with 3 people while the rest of the horde was smart enough to get shelter.
As they are dropping people off at their preferred stops, the two guides said “Thank you for coming. We hope you had a good time.” They repeated this for each small group they dropped off. We asked that they leave us at a bar. I for one needed a beer to shake off the day. As I got out of the van, I waited for the “Thank you for coming. We hope you had a good time”, but all I received for my troubles was “Bye!”. The beer that followed was excellent, though.