On the southernmost tip of the south island sits Curio Bay, the closest I’ve ever been to Antarctica. Wind whips my face and hair and I feel I might blow over the cliff’s edge into the ocean. There seems to be nothing else around save wind, sea, and waves. I feel alone here in this whirlwind. Beyond lies that one and only great icy landscape. I can almost touch one of my dreams.
I find a 170-million-year-old petrified forest along the shore’s edge. Two yellow-eyed penguins—some of rarest in the world—are toddling along just meters from where I’m standing. This is their natural habitat, endangered now. One little guy hops to the water’s edge, crossing the aged remains, and dives into the sea. His fishing trip seems too brief, and just a minute later he’s hopping back across the rock to a nest hidden in the brush. I imagine only a handful of people in the world have been able to see such a thing in this natural landscape.
In Waikawa just down a deserted road, we find an old school building from 1918 that has been converted into a museum. All the placards are handwritten in grandma’s cursive, the photos are black and white. 19th Century rusty relics from ship wrecks off the coast fill the display shelves. Analog file folders of history are stacked floor to ceiling, in front of which sits the grumpiest old woman—the only old woman—within miles. She tsk tsks us for not having planned in advance when we inquire if there is a place for food nearby. Not this time of night, she says. It’s 5:00pm. According to her, we are out of luck.
Along a dark lush green rain forest hike, we are caught in a frenzy of fluttering birds. We stand still, feeling as if we’ve suddenly been placed onto the set of a live nature show with tiny colorful wings everywhere. They’re landing on tree branches so close we feel as if we might touch their warm little bodies. Chattering and chirping, singing unfamiliar tunes, they seem just as intrigued by our presence as we theirs. We have no birds like these back home. This is an island country. There are no nasties (poisonous creatures) in the rain forests here, resulting in a bird species diversely spectacular despite the threat of the opossum.
Then there are Cathedral caves, tall cavernous structures hallowed out by years sitting next to the sea. We have just an hour before the tide is to come in, making them inaccessible. Tall, dark, damp, and holy inside, the largest cathedral wraps around in a U shape, taking us far within the earth into complete darkness before spitting us out again into sunlight on the opposite side of the beach.