Cheese and Penguins, Perfect Together

No, not for eating… well, the cheese, yes, of course.

Oamaru is on the South Island’s east coast, about two-thirds of the way down from the top… they saved the downtown’s charming industrial Victorian architecture (how often does one get to say “charming industrial” and mean it?) from the wrecking ball and put in a lot of cafes and art galleries and crafty places, making it a neat place to stroll around on an afternoon. Not that I did much of that.

I was on a mission. Two missions. Distracted only by a delicious almond paste cookie from the bakery in the touristy old downtown (mmmm, almond paste), I made for opposite ends of the city (not at the same time).

First: Whitestone Cheese Company. Oh, yessss, preciousssssss…. I got to see burly young lads washing curds and stirring whey and manfully handling wheels of cheese by peeping through the viewing gallery and then had a tasting. To be frank, I have tasted most of Whitestone’s offerings already, putting one (or two) into my basket when I go grocery shopping, but they had a few I haven’t seen in the store, including a sumptuously creamy goat brie called Parsons Rock and an aged version of their gazillion award-winning Windsor Blue. Yum.

Next: penguins. Not just any penguins. Fairy penguins. I’d seen a couple at the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Reserve back in September, but Oamaru is famous for having a large blue penguin colony. Blue penguins, called fairy penguins in Australia and also in general by people who like a bit of whimsy in their language, are the smallest of the 17 penguin species. They are very much the opposite of my favorite, the Yellow-Eyed loner Penguins. Blues are very social and very, uhm, into gettin’ down… A breeding pair can have as many as four chicks in a single season!

I stopped by the colony for a daytime tour to peek into the little nests they’ve built for them, then returned at nightfall for the big penguinpalooza. Alas there is no photography allowed, but each night a couple hundred penguins return from the sea and waddle up the rocky incline to their nests, whereupon they are greeted with much raucousness… from chicks that want to be fed, from mates who want to get down and get busy even with several dozen tourists staring at them, from competitors and even from a couple rabbits who also live in the predator-free reserve and seemed to enjoy hopping around the mayhem.

It was amazing to watch the penguins come in… unlike the yellow-eyed penguins that come to shore alone, blue penguins form a “raft” or cluster a couple hundred feet offshore and then all ride the surf in together. One penguin is clearly the point man and comes ashore first, stands still looking around himself, takes a step, looks around again, etc. The point penguin leads all the way up to the nesting area.

Curiously, the “rafts” seemed to be organized by neighborhood. A batch of penguins came in and all went to the same general stretch of the nesting area, followed by another and another, all to different parts of the colony. All I could think of was commuters coming home after a hard day’s work.

Exiting the colony, you have to drive along a narrow road that runs beside the harbor. There are signs warning to go slow because of penguins and they mean it. I saw several little guys wandering along the road, looking a bit lost, or maybe just in search of happy hour at the nearest pub.

Although I didn’t take any photos (flash photography scares them and the last thing I want to do is traumatize a wee fairy penguin who’s spent the day looking for fish to regurgitate to its chicks and dodging leopard seals and such), you can see some penguins crossing the road about halfway through this video I found on YouTube.

In the same neck of the woods, Karl and I checked out the Moeraki Boulders, which are odd giant concretions just sitting on the beach. Fascinating, though it really made me wonder why they are all piled up in one spot and nowhere else.

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