Although Allan’s Beach on the south-eastern side of Otago Harbour did sport signs carrying information about Hookers Sea lions, I hadn’t really expected to see any. They are one of the rarest species of sea lion in the world, with the main colonies found only on New Zealand’s remote offshore islands.
But we’d barely arrived on the beach after walking down the track past Pyramid Rocks when we nearly tripped over a female stretched out on the sand. With their creamy brown colouring, they blend in well. Further along was another – stirring to have a scratch.
But the bull was something else. More than twice the size of the delicate females, he was magnificent – and scary. As I’d just been taking a wide-angle shot of the bay I didn’t have time to change lenses. He was so close I didn’t really need to. We realised afterwards that the indentations in the sand next to us probably marked where he had been snoozing earlier.
With us there, he opted for a lazy swim to the edge of the sand spit. Hauling his massive bulk from water to sand, he rolled, sat, then shook sand off his mane in a bright halo. We crept a little closer – but not much. Warnings that these are wild animals and should not be approached were superfluous. I’d no more have attempted that than try to pat a sleeping lion.
Fur seal populations also seem to have gained ground since I lived in this part of the world some 40 years ago. Existing colonies have grown and almost every rocky shoreline sports a few individuals slumbering in the sun.
They are not the only rare wildlife to be found around the Peninsula’s deeply indented shoreline. Taiaroa Heads boasts the only mainland colony of albatrosses and yellow-eyed penguins nest in several places – one of which has been developed into a facility that enables close encounter viewing.
But my favourite place there was and is Sandfly Bay. Here, dunes sweep up from the beach in majestic, sculptured shapes. Just below the park, kids are swooping down them on polystyrene surf boards. Getting to sea level is a floundering version of running down scree slopes
At the far end, my map shows a path up to SandyMount. This appears to head across an area that looks like a vertical Sahara – vast swathes of sand wind sculpted into sharp ridges and soft , inviting gullies. It is so pristine that I’m reluctant to make tracks. That proves difficult anyway as some of the markers have gone missing.
We soon discovered that treading in the footsteps of a couple we’d spotted earlier just meant there were more of us finding that we were actually on the wrong ridge. We have to lose hard gained height. Only one way to go.
I’m running wildly down the steep-sided gully when, out of the corner of my eye, I see Rob overtaking me – somersaulting. Not entirely intended but pretty impressive.
It’s worth the scramble just to experience the expansive landscape with its swirls of yellow, orange and brown. And by the time, we make it to the “top” – and then the next top – it didn’t seem much further to go to check out “Lovers’ Leap” and “The Chasm”.
Here, on what feels like the edge of the world, the cliffs drop with dramatic steepness down to the sea. Waves and wind have helped carve deep clefts, spanned by narrow grass bridges. Sheep are grazing nonchalantly near – unphased by the vertigo that makes both my stomach and toes clench as I stand at the edge of a strategically placed viewing platform.
By the time we trek back along the beach to where ‘snail’ is parked on Seal Point Road, small groups of people are making their way in the opposite direction to watch as hoiho make their nightly trek from surf to nest. We’re too knackered – and too aware of the cold beer waiting in Snail’s fridge – to join them.
But just below the park, before we start the last dune climb, I spot movement on the beach and a young couple gazing with silent reverence. Yep, the hoiho are at this end as well.
The two watchers had just been checking out a fur seal when the yellow-eyed penguin surfed in beside them and they beat a hasty retreat so as not to disturb its passage. It’s heart-warming to see the respectful care accorded these rare birds. They certainly need it – and the increasing availability of information and education about them surely helps.
This is where the wild things belong.