My passage to the South Island was the next day, and left from a dock (quay) in downtown Wellington. During the ferry ride, I saw lots of birds from the deck, and even from the window while seated inside: gulls, terns, Fairy Prions, shearwaters and petrels. When we arrived in Picton, I headed toward Abel Tasman National Park, where I saw tiny native Fantails, a White-eye called the Silvereye, and a Baillon's (or Water) Crake. It struck me how dainty and fragile they seemed. The Fantails would hop around the branches with their tails erect. Their entire tiny bodies quivered so delicately, they seemed like little toys whose battery was about to expire.
The next day, I headed south toward the Franz Joseph Glacier, along the western coast. There were some large reed marshes along parts of the road, where I was thrilled to find a Weka, a brown, flightless native rail.
It was very foggy along the coast that day, so I didn't see a lot of wildlife there. However, at one vantage point above the ocean, I was fortunate to see a Fiordland Crested Penguin, and some New Zealand Fur Seals. Later on, I also noticed a Kea, the other brown, native parrot, as it flew along the road, and landed in a tree. The way it flew and behaved, it reminded me more of a jay than a parrot!
I realized that that description was pretty accurate when I went up to see the glacier. There were signs everywhere, warning of "severe tire damage" caused by Keas chewing on the soft parts of your car!
Well, I left my car, and no Kea attacked it. (Whew.) I took a long, close-up look at the glacier, and then went on a hike of the surrounding forest, returning with photos of a New Zealand Pigeon, and a South Island Tomtit .
In the afternoon, I headed to Te Anau, the closest town to Milford Sound. It was Christmas eve, so I doubted that any boat would be running the next day. I was pleased to discover they were indeed running tour boats, just not tour buses. I signed up for the first tour in the morning, and I would had to drive myself to the dock at Milford, and be there by 8am.
Only one tiny problem: the next morning was Christmas morning, no gas stations were open, and my fuel gauge was hovering on the low end between E and 1/4! Being impulsive by nature, I inhaled deeply, and went anyway. It's only a 40-minute drive. I can make it, right???
I was driving slowly, but not too slowly to catch up with a tourbus... one that was running only because it originated in some other town! After initially being a bit resentful that I wasn't on it, I decided to follow it. I thought first that they might offer assistance if I ran out of gas, and second, they were stopping at all the scenic places that I probably would have missed on my own!
That was my only peace of mind. There wasn't a single building between Te Anau and Milford. The needle was dropping everytime I turned a corner... and road was ALL corners. At one point, I had to navigate through a long, steep, shoulderless, unlighted tunnel that didn't seem to be paved, and all I could think was, if the car gives up here, I'm in a lot of trouble.!
When I finally came within view of the ferry terminal, I was ready to kiss the ground. The needle was well below "E" by this point. That said, I quickly discovered that there was only one gas pump in town, and it only operated once an hour, on the hour. There was nothing on the sign indicating whether anyone would show up on Christmas day. I boarded the ship, but couldn't help imagining being stuck in this scenic, remote place until the next day.
In spite of that stress, the Milford Sound cruise was spectacular. We saw a lot of New Zealand Fur Seals, and a pod of dolphins started following the boat, including a mother and baby who were jumping beside the bow! And by sheer coincidence, I also ended up sharing a table with an American couple also from Seattle.
Returning from that marvelous cruise, I gingerly guided and coaxed the car toward the pump. I discovered a long line of cars there already, all waiting for gas! The top of the hour came and went, and we were still waiting. Desperate, I asked around, and someone gave me the attendant's home phone number. I was a little embarrassed to call someone at home on Christmas day, but I did anyway. He came right down, and filled us up. I was very grateful, and relieved, to say the least!
When I returned to the motel, I found a note taped to my door. The management was concerned that I was alone, and wanted to invite me to Christmas dinner! This was just one of many, many examples of Kiwi hospitality that I will never forget.
Leaving Te Anau, I found I was one day ahead of schedule. I had two options: I could go to Stewart Island, the only place I could reasonably expect to find a kiwi, or I could follow the advice of numerous other tourists I had met, and go whale-watching in Kaikoura.
Birds vs. whales was a difficult decision, but I decided to try for Stewart Island by ferry. Of course, being impulsive, I didn't check the schedules or fares or availability. I just started driving towards the terminal which I knew was in Bluff. I even passed right by a reserve that was home to the formerly-extinct-but-rediscovered, Takahe, a gorgeous, flightless rail colored a deep blue. This was the only place in the world where you can see them, but I wanted to see a wild kiwi, darnit!
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