After breakfast we hit the road and started driving along the gorgeously scenic East Coast. It was nice to get out of the city and start experiencing the country side. A couple of things became apparent right away. One is that there are a lot of sheep in New Zealand. Like...seriously, a lot. The other was that there were a lot of confusing road signs. Even though things looked confusing, the driving wasn't so bad. As long as Bryan remembered to stay left, things were OK. Traffic circles were a little disorienting but other than that, we were all good.
|At one of many, many sheep farms|
|Bryan the driving master|
You know what else they have in New Zealand that I missed from the US? Weird roadside stuff! Like this giant fish!
|Big weird fish in Rakaia, NZ|
Our destination for the day was Oamaru, only about 3 hours from Christchurch. Since we knew we had plenty of time, when in started to rain we made a pit stop in Timaru at a pub called the Jolly Potter. It was pretty deserted in the middle of the day, but it was a cool little place and I was glad we stopped. They had some local brews on tap, including a tasty one called Tui, so we sipped on those while Bryan watched the Rugby World Cup and I flipped through a stack of NZ food magazines they had sitting around (I'm guessing they were there for when guys bring their girlfriends to sports bars, hahaha). There was also pottery lining the walls of all the bar, apparently all made by local artisans.
By the time we left the pub it had stopped raining, so we had a nice view of our surroundings as we drove along. In addition to sheep, the countryside is full of beautiful churches that I did my best to photograph as we whizzed by.
|Pretty church #1|
|Pretty church #2, complete with windshield sticker|
It wasn't long before we were pulling into Oamaru. It was SUCH a cute little town; I couldn't wait to explore it. But for now we drove right on through to the other side, following the signs for the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. Bryan and I were both absolutely ecstatic about the possibility of seeing penguins in the wild. We'd never seen them in their natural habitat before, and we thought it would be pretty great. Plus, the little blue penguins are the smallest penguin species in the WORLD, making them extra adorable. They're called little blues!!! So cute!
We found the place easily, and bought tickets to get into a closed area at night to watch the little blues swim back ashore after feeding out in the sea. We also walked around their little conservation area with penguin nesting boxes. There was a barn where you could look down a bunch of pipes into some occupied nest boxes. A few of the boxes were full - some by lone penguins, others by penguin couples, and one by a mama penguin incubating some eggs. It was soooo cool to see them. They were SO LITTLE, they all looked like babies, even the adults! It was great.
|Cozy penguin nesting box|
There were chubby rabbits hopping all around the nesting boxes. One of the workers at the viewing area told us with an eye roll than the rabbits were not native and had been introduced to the South Island by British settlers. The rabbits, as rabbits are wont to do, bred like crazy and became considered a pest. Pesky they may be, but they sure are cute!
After spending an inordinate amount of time cooing over the penguins in the nesting boxes (no photos allowed, so a not to disturb the birds), Bryan and I walked over to the rocky beach. We were looking out into the water, hoping for a glimpse of a whale or dolphin, when Bryan spotted some movement up on the beach. A FUR SEAL! We hurried closer to admire him. He was huge and blubbery, and kept yawning and stretching his neck out. It was hilarious to watch him.
|FUR SEAL! Is it just me, or does he look very suspicious?!|
|Flipper! With weird fingernails!|
|On my list of favorite things = ANIMALS YAWNING|
As you can tell, we got pretty excited about the fur seal, and Bryan spent a long time photographing it while I stood by squealing "It's SO CUTE!" every time it moved. After a while, we took an interest in the blocked-off path behind us. We asked the guide why it was blocked, and he said we could go ahead and follow it awhile "at our own risk." So we did!
The path led right along the water, providing loads of jaw-dropping panoramic views. Seabirds were flying all around, some of them dropping down to the sea for fish, others perching along the rocky shores.
|Spotted shag. I think they look like they just woke up! Bedheads.|
|Admiring the seascape|
We hiked a ways along the trail but decided to turn around before it got dark. As it turned out, we had no concept of when it gets dark in New Zealand so we ended up back where we started in plenty of time. The people at the Visitor Center said we still had plenty of time before the little blues started coming ashore, but that there was a place nearby where the larger yellow-eyed penguins might be coming in for the night. So we hopped in the car and drove to the Bushy Beach Scenic Area, about 5 minutes away.
We parked the car on a dirt road next to some sheep and started down a narrow path. The place was one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. To the left of us were rolling green hills covered with grazing sheep and fluffy little lambs. To our right, the Pacific Ocean crashed ashore next to tall, rocky cliffs. Between us and the ocean was some low vegetation and a sandy beach, and, upon closer inspection, some yellow-eyed penguins!!
|Sheep at twilight|
|The yellow-eyed penguin, the world's second rarest penguin|
We followed the path along to a viewing hide and hunkered inside, away from the wind.
|Bryan enthusiastically pointing out wildlife|
We didn't linger in the hide long, since we couldn't see any penguins from that vantage point. As we were walking back along the path, I stopped at a particularly scenic lookout spot. "This is such a great place," I said. I heard Bryan rummaging around behind me, but didn't pay much attention, figuring he was switching lenses on the camera. But when I turned around, he was holding a beautiful engagement ring and there were tears in his eyes. "Do you think it would be a good place to give you this?" he asked. I'm not quite clear on the next few minutes. I didn't put the ring on right away. I was too busy jumping up and down, then hugging Bryan and crying. Eventually he said "Is that a yes?" and I said "OF COURSE, YES, YES!!!!!!!" and finally remembered to put the ring on.
|Engagement spot! Could we have asked for a more amazing view?!|
|Happy girl : )|
|MY RING! I love it!|
I was so happy. Bryan said he'd had the ring since his last trip to the US in June (he got it at Lord's Jewelers in Montana) and it had been hiding in the TV stand ever since, with me walking past it EVERY DAY. He was just waiting for the right moment, and I'd say he picked the most perfect time. We were doing something we loved together - hiking outside in a foreign country, looking for wildlife. And there were PENGUINS! Who could ask for more?!
Needless to say, we were both flying high after our experience at Bushy Beach. We hurried back down the trail (I may have actually skipped at one point) and got back in the car to go see some more penguins. We arrived back at the Penguin Colony just in time to get some hot cocoa before the little blues (also adorably known as FAIRY PENGUINS) started coming ashore. Somehow I managed to refrain shouting "WE JUST GOT ENGAGED!" at everyone we saw, but I held it in, wanting to make sure that my mom was the first person that got to hear the news, not some random girl serving me hot chocolate. We curled up on the bleachers and watched the cutest penguins I've ever seen start surfing onto the beach, then waddling hurriedly to their nest boxes. There was a photography ban since the penguin colony has had problems in the past with people refusing to turn off the flash on the cameras.
We had a great time watching the penguins come in, group after group. Altogether there were about 70 penguins that came in that night, and more that were already up in the nest boxes and came out to greet their returning mates. Hilariously, the rabbits that we'd seen earlier didn't budge an inch, and the penguins and the rabbits often came within inches of each other without seeming to take notice of one another. About an hour later, after we'd watched all the penguins swim in, we got back in the car and drove about 10 yards before we noticed that there were penguins outside the penguin colony (and thus outside the photography ban). Taking special care to make sure our flash was turned off, we snapped a few shots.
|Little blues, making a run for it|
As we sat watching the little guys, one ran straight for our car...and then straight underneath it. Ummm...did we seriously have a penguin under our car? What do you even do about that? They totally don't put penguin extraction techniques in the Lonely Planet guidebook. We sat there awhile, while I kept watch on my side, waiting for him to pop out. And pop out he did! All of a sudden I saw a little penguin head poke out right under my door! Then he twisted his neck around, saw my face, and inched right back under the car. Oops. Eventually he wiggled out and waddled off on his own.
After the penguins had started to settle down for the night, we drove back into town and checked in at a nicer-than-usual hotel, the Kingsgate Brydone.
|Bryan in our swanky hotel room|
We didn't stick around long in our awesome hotel room. It was late, and we hadn't had dinner. We were hoping to have a nice meal as an engagement celebration. We asked at the front desk where we could get some food and the concierge looked doubtful. She said that given that was after 9 PM, we might not have much luck except at...McDonald's. As it turned out, we didn't have to stoop that low. A pub called Fat Sally's was still open, so instead of a fancy meal, I ate cajun potato wedges and Bryan ate nachos while we both sipped beers and watched rugby. And it didn't matter what we were eating. I think I was too excited to taste it anyway. I went to bed that night with a smile on my face, thinking