Off-Track in New Zealand

IMG_9215_Lighthouse, Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula.JPG

Lighthouse on Taiaroa Head, Otago Peinsula, South Island, New Zealand. A Royal Albatross rides the thermals at center left. The Royal Albatross Colony protects the only “mainland” breeding colony for these magnificent birds in the world.


Traveling off the beaten path without an itinerary or reservations can lead to some unexpected pleasures and adventures. this devil-may-care approach can and has landed us in unnerving situations, but in Otago, South Island of New Zealand, we found ourselves happily diverted to unusual events and sights. At least one — a sheep shearing contest — certainly isn’t on your average tourist itinerary.

Sheep Shearing in Balclutha, Otago

Finding ourselves with some extra days, we decided to head to The Catlins in NZ’s southeastern corner to see or ourselves the magnificent terrain. Entering the town of Balclutha, I spied a sign advertising a sheep shearing competition. We decided we just had to go.

IMG_8937_Balacluth-Otago Sheep Shearing_the contestants, NZ v. Wales

The contestants line up: the men in black are Kiwis, the men in red are challengers from Wales, UK. 

The contest centered around an “international” competition highlighting the shearing prowess of native Kiwis against Wales’ best shearers. The competition was amazing. The entire process had hawk-eyed judges examining shearers’ technique (not good to nick the sheep too many times) and assure that no cheating occurred. (I wasn’t sure about the “no cheating” bit; is cheating leaving too much wool on the sheep or ripping it off the sheep with something other than the prescribed set of shears?)

Throughout the competition every clip and buzz of the shears was narrated by a man who sounded somewhere between a carnival barker and the guy who calls the Kentucky Derby. And wool was flying everywhere. It appeared that whoever sheared ten sheep first, won. The Kiwi who finished first sheared his ten in less than 20 minutes, which seemed pretty fast to me.




The competition looked back-breaking for both shearers and sheep.

What was interesting was watching the wool-gatherers — almost all women and no slouches — as they scurried around gathering up the shorn wool, sorting it in a mad frenzy of whirling arms into different baskets, or swiftly sweeping up those pesky remnants of wool balls all over the floor. I later found out that the wool-gatherers are also judged as to how well they sort the wool. Apparently you have to put the belly wool in one basket, armpit wool in another, dirty, backside wool in yet another. (OK, I’m probably exaggerating a bit here, but not much. there really are standards and rules for wool sorting.) In fact, there are a whole host of shearing rules that must be adhered to; an infraction leads to added points, and, as in golf, the less points you accrue, the better you are.

IMG_8969_The sorters

Wool-sorters picking feverishly through the wool. 

Needless to say, the Kiwis won. The two Men in Black will advance to the National Sheep Shearing Competition.

On to the Catlins

Having amused ourselves with the shearing competition, we set off again for The Catlins, a scenic stretch of southeastern NZ coastline with peaks and bays, blowholes and rocks waiting to cause a shipwreck. Absolutely breathtaking.

IMG_9025_Roaring Bay, south of Nugget Point, Catlins

Roaring Bay, south of Nugget Point.


Sea grasses in the breeze at Nugget Point.

IMG_9040_Taurakapanui Falls

Purukaunui Falls. Being summer, these tiered falls were a bit low on water, but still beautiful. 


The walk to the falls led through some beautiful forest, lush at all levels.

Onward to Otago Peninsula

We spent three delightful days exploring the Otago Peninsula in the southeast of NZ’s South Island, east of the city of Dunedin. The scenery was stunning, which we eagerly explored, but the real draw for us was the wildlife.


A Royal Albatross raises up to allow the nesting chick to cool off. The adult’s open mouth also indicates that she (or he, both parents take tuns on the nest) is also feeling the heat.

I mentioned in the beginning the Royal Albatross Colony on Taiaroa Head, at the tip of the Peninsula. We hiked to the top of the RAC’s land to observe nesting albatrosses. The staff at the center take seriously their mission to protect this magnificent birds and assist in their breeding. On hot days such as the day we visited, rangers turn on sprinklers planted at intervals among the nests to give the laying birds a cooling mist.

The Royal Albatross is second only to the Wandering Albatross in wingspan; the RA  runs an average of a 3 m. span (9.8+ ft.). They generally lay an egg every other year; the juvenile albatross leaves the home territory at about age 9-12 months, and stays aloft at sea for five years before returning to the natal home. The juniors usually are usually about 7+ years old before they find a mate and begin to reproduce. A combination of their late breeding and the devastation in numbers during the 19th-20th c. keep their numbers sufficiently low to be considered vulnerable.

IMG_9172_Blue Penguins, Otago Peninsula

Little Blue Penguins coming ashore at night, Otago Peninsula.

My favorite of the wildlife we observed were the Blue Penguins, the smallest of the 17 penguin species. Previously we had seen up close a molting Blue in Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, east of Christ Church, and, observed in Omaru the penguins’ ritual nighttime “parade” as they waddled ashore from a long day’s hunting out in the ocean. Otago is the only place in NZ where people are allowed to photograph these extremely shy birds, and only without use of flash.

IMG_8738_Molting blue penguin in nestig box

Blue penguins molt 1-2 times a year. During this phase, they are extremely vulnerable to introduced predators such as the Australian possum, stoats, weasels, feral cats, rats and even wild pigs. Many conservation groups as well as farmers are providing nesting boxes as safe havens for these threatened birds during their most vulnerable times: breeding and molting.

IMG_9202_Little Shag or cormarants, Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula

The slopes of Taiaroa Head on Otago Peninsula are home to large colonies of Little Shags, as the Kiwis call this local cormorant.

IMG_9257_Yellow Eyed Penguin coming in to shore in late afternoon, Otago Peninsula

A Yellow-eyed Penguin — found only in NZ — waddles ashore late afternoon. They are among the rarest of penguin species and are considered highly vulnerable.


A rare close-up of a yellow-eyed penguin. Each penguin marches off the beach and into the scrub to his/her territory for the night. Note the yellow device in the foreground. It is part of a trap to ensnare and kill stoats, one of several invasive species that have threatened most of NZ’s birds near to extinction if not a vulnerable status. The farmer who owns this land has partitioned off several expanses to be used for penguin and other species’ habitat. In addition to Blue & yellow-eyed penguin nesting boxes, he places traps every few meters in the conservation zones to help eliminate these predators.


These sea lions couldn’t have cared less that we were taking their picture.


Young NZ fur seal. Once nearly hunted to extinction, this species has rebounded quite well and is beginning to thrive.


One other form of critter caught our attention, but not out in the wild but at the Otago Museum’s Discovery World Tropical Forest, a multi-story tropical rain forest biosphere full of butterflies and moths from around the world. I became a bit attached to them myself.


For some reason, these paper kites from SE Asia decided to light upon me — at one point there were 4 or 5.

IMG_9364_Paper Kite from SE Asia


I’m not sure what species this is. My only complaint about the museum’s butterfly exhibit was the distinct lack of signage or photo identification of the butterflies.


A last look at a Blue Penguin heading “home” for the night.