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 new zealand

Week 2
In Christchurch, I stepped inside the cathedral and choral music filled my ears - evensong was just beginning! It was March and fall was in the air. Sandals were nowhere to be seen; jackets and sweaters were appearing. I took out my few warmies and headed up to the mountains, stopping for the night by Lake Tekapo, a huge aquamarine lake backed by the jagged peaks of the Southern Alps. Queenstown is backpacker country and known as a center for extreme sports, one of those towns so inundated with young travelers that it's difficult to see a local community. Hang gliders floated down from a nearby mountainside.

Milford Sound lies in Fiordland National Park and is one of the more accessible and dramatic openings to the Tasman Sea. The boat pushed off at around 4pm, gliding between sheer silver cliffs, some with narrow, incredibly tall waterfalls. I took a ride around in a small boat with a naturalist, learning about the flora and fauna in the serene Anita Bay to find a few seals playing in the rocks, birds overhead, little wildlife but ruggedly beautiful. We anchored for the night in another hidden bay; the cliffs towered around the cruiser creating a sense of mystery.

In the morning the tops of the cliffs had disappeared into cloud, but light filtered through to slowly bring morning to the fiord. An amazing phenomenon: Sterling Falls started high, thin and narrow, then spread out like a bridal veil, and when it hit the water, it created neon-like flashing radial patterns in the water below, as mesmerizing as disco lights. Unforgettable. It is said that a woman who feels the spray of Sterling Falls on her face will be as ten years younger. I'm hoping it's true.

Dunedin had a welcoming feel to it, especially after the hustle and macho atmosphere in Queenstown. I walked the university neighborhood with its lived-in Victorian houses. Customers in restaurants and cafes were so polite there, saying please and thank you with every order. Butterflies run free in the Tropical Forest room at the Otago Museum. There's a full-length mirror for you to check yourself on the way out, so none of the beautiful insects come along with you.

If I could have stayed another day, I would have driven out on the picturesque Otago Peninsula again, stopping at all the sweet little towns to explore. The Royal Albatross Center protects a secluded colony of the wide-winged birds on a remote hillside at the end of the peninsula. These majestic birds fly in a circle around the South Pole, roosting there and in Chile, without touching land for months at a time. A few soared over the waves, fuzzy babies nested nearby. The Penguin Place has built hidden trenches where humans can walk and observe the shy yellow-eyed penguins unseen. It was molting season and the birds were fluffy and lethargic.

The charming historic district of Oamaru looked like something from a fading sepia photograph. A ferocious wind was blowing at nightfall as a motley group waited in a wooden 'hide', an open shed high above the beach where we would be unseen. Eventually a few yellow-eyed penguin parents swam in from the sea, one at a time, to feed their young, nestled in the bushes. Later, at another point along the same outcrop, a crowd watched in silence as around 100 blue penguins swam in in small groups and waddled up a hillside to their nests in a sheltered area, fenced to keep predators out. Once at home, they called to each other, tiny shrill voices in the night.

Moeraki beach looked like an alien landscape, with huge round egg-like rocks in the surf, apparently during high tide. There was something spiritual about watching the waves caress the boulders they've smoothed and polished over eons of time. Cloudy and drizzly all day, the sun came out briefly to light the rocks while I walked their beach. This natural haven will resonate with me for a long time.

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