Hagley Park in Christchurch has some magnificent sequoia redwood specimens. I happened to be walking past one when I noticed something odd. Seemingly growing right out of the base of the trunk was an ivy, incredibly old by the looks of it, appearing more like tropical vines, a growth that needed to be cut out. It apparently is doing no damage to the tree. The more I stared at it, the more I admired its artistic effect and the chutzpah it took for the caretakers to leave it alone.
Oamaru is home to a colony of blue penguins that visitors from all over come to see. They’re endemic to coastal New Zealand and southern Australia, the smallest of 18 species at 43cm (17in) in length and 1kg in weight. Unusual too is the fact that their color is distinctively blue (and white), while all other penguins have the conventional black-and-white markings.
I saw them for the second time in less than a year, the last time on Phillip Island in Australia (near Melbourne). I took my pre-school grandson to the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony because of his love of penguins and the fact that he wanted to witness firsthand the blues’ nightly march to their nests from the sea. This he got to see, as they arrived in several waves. Though there were 111 officially counted tonight as having arrived at the facility, the penguins come ashore all along the Otago coastline. On the tramp back to the hotel, we were able to walk up to several along Waterfront Road and the Esplanade, one of the best opportunities to get close to penguins in an urban environment.
Blue penguins nest wherever they can find a rock crevice or dig out niches in soil. At the colony, we noticed artificial structures throughout the grounds, clearly encouragement for the birds to make themselves at home at this former rock quarry.
Along the facility’s periphery is a concrete breakwater, built before the turn of the 20th century. While the audience was waiting for the blues’ arrival, we could see and hear from the bleachers tremendous waves crashing into its side, accompanied by the roar of scrabbling rocks, an impressive show in itself.
Exciting as this experience was, we got an unexpected surprise earlier in the day. As my grandson and I were walking past a small building along the Esplanade, an employee called out to us from behind a chain link fence and asked if we were heading toward the penguins. We were. Don introduced himself and wondered if we’d be interested in seeing the penguins he’d built shelters for on the grounds. Despite my suspicious tendency, I said, “Sure,” with some reservation, I admit. Don was quite jovial and explained that he’d been doing this for 8 years, keeping watch on blues that have nested in about 15 small shelters made out of wood. He lifted the roof of one to reveal a mother penguin and her two chicks. There was only one other resident in the compound, the empty homes awaiting the squatters’ return from the sea. Don encouraged me to take pictures, personally a great opportunity because no photography would be permitted at the Blue Penguin Colony.
Further down the Esplanade, Sumpter Wharf, its decking long ago rotted and damaged and therefore entry completely fenced off, was occupied by thousands of spotted shags (parekareka) who ignored the rickety underpinnings.
While Oamaru has other tourist draws, including an historic distinct called theVictorian Precinct and being the steampunk capital of New Zealand, its main draw is the penguin colony.
Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony
2 Waterfront Road
03 433 1195
In a world awash in chicken restaurants, what makes Nando’s, a chain with outlets throughout the world, so different? For one thing, it had its commercial beginning in a Johannesburg mining suburb. But, its uniqueness is not that the chicken preparation is South African, because it isn’t, but that the marinade derives from a Mozambican-Portuguese recipe made with peri-peri (or piri-piri) chiles that belong to the same family as the tabasco pepper.
Although the pepper is hotter than a jalapeño, it isn’t classified as one of the world’s most blistering. Instead, it has been described as relatively tame up front, with citrusy and herbal notes, but packing a sneaky heat at the end. This might explain its huge success in the marinade that Nando’s has perfected, showcased in approximately 1,000 worldwide outlets, including (for now) American restaurants in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. It has been a big hit especially in the U.K. and Australia, which markets account for about half the total locations.
At New Zealand Nando locations, the chicken can be ordered in quarter, half or whole portions. It is marinated for 24 hours in lemon and herb or peri-peri sauce (mild, hot or extra-hot) before flame-grilling. You can additionally douse your chicken with any of the bottled (and commercially available) pepper sauces. The extra-hot peri-peri sauce packs heat and has a strongly lemony tang, almost rindy. Interestingly, the mild sauce (which is labeled ‘medium’ here in the U.S., available through Amazon) is not as mild as the less intrepid might think, and is much lighter in color.
My preferred chicken cut is dark meat, finding it more succulent and less prone to drying out than breast meat. Still, I’ve always found Nando’s breast meat juicy and tender (☆☆☆). The peri-peri marinade imparts a tangy quality and sustains a steady heat that never overpowers or blisters, even the extra-hot version.
I’d eaten at Nando’s in Christchurch three times before, without realizing until now that Max’s World Cafe’s outstanding African Portuguese Chicken closer to home (in Issaquah) is the same thing. Hands down, Max’s is superior—but much more expensive. I suspect one day that Nando’s will make its way west. In fact, there is one outlet in Vancouver, B.C.
145D Colombo Street
03 332 3207
Along the rocky beach of Akaroa’s French Bay, the low tide exposes all sorts of interesting things. Among them are seashells, including turrets that curiously seem to accumulate in one small area.
The tide pools reveal not only various forms of sea life, including small crabs, mollusks and sea cucumbers, but marine algae, including this most unusual-looking brown seaweed, hormosira banksii, commonly known as Neptune’s Necklace. They are found only in New Zealand and Australia. Besides jewelry, even children’s pop beads, they look to me like strung-together green olives.
How is it that a hilly, almost mountainous peninsula that is an ideal environment for lush forest, surrounded on three sides by the ocean and composed of mineral-rich volcanic soil, seems almost devoid of it? Any drive through the Banks Peninsula reveals a landscape that is tussocky with very few stands of trees. What isn’t covered by grassland seems overtaken by gorse and broom, hardly forest land that you might expect in this setting.
It is an unfortunate fact that old growth forest was destroyed by the Maori who set fire to the canopy to flush out game. After the Europeans arrived, the practice of deliberate burning continued, along with introducing sheep and goats and gorse that didn’t do any favors to the ecology.
It seems incongruous now but the Banks Peninsula was previously the domain of two slightly overlapping, non-contemporaneous volcanoes that were last active approximately 10 million years ago. Because they were shield volcanoes, they released broad lava flows that are now highly eroded. What remains now are ridges with steep sides that radiate from their volcanic centers. The most extraordinary features of the peninsula are its two enormous harbo(u)rs, Lyttelton and Akaroa, which formed from the oceanic flooding of the two volcanic calderas. The peninsula now looks like a giant lobster claw jutting out from the Canterbury Plains.
I got a breathtaking view of Lyttelton Harbour from a viewing platform at the top of the Christchurch gondola. From there, I could also see the town and port of Lyttelton that suffered so much damage in the earthquakes. Other than the views from up here, including one of Christchurch and the Southern Alps beyond it, there is very little to admire. The ground is covered in tussocky grass. All the footpaths are littered with sheep poo as these animals have free rein to graze anywhere among the hills.
I saw a more grassy landscape at Godley Head Reserve, which once served as a military defense battery during WWII, the bunkers now abandoned and covered in graffiti. The grasses grow higher here probably because sheep browsing is restricted by fencing. There was no need for careful sidestepping along the walking paths. The headland is surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs that drop off to the ocean.
My wife and I also took a two-day trip to the peninsula’s other side, Akaroa. The scenery changes here with greener hillsides and larger stands of trees, also some second-growth forests that suggest the promising possibilities of regeneration on the Banks. Akaroa is now a resort town, its commercial district divided by an indenting bay, that were once French and English settlements. The entire township now has a more Gallic character as all the streets and restaurants have French names, though there’s hardly a word of français spoken. A good way to see the lava flows that occurred many times is to take a boat cruise into the harbor. The erosive power of pounding waves becomes apparent when you notice the many sea caves along the cliff faces.
The drive to Akaroa passes by the Kaitorete Spit. Although not technically part of the Banks Peninsula, the spit juts out from its southwestern tip for 25km, separating shallow Lake Ellesmere, larger than either harbor, from the sea. Two weeks ago, we visited Birdling’s Flat which can best be described as a pebble beach. Rockhounds come here to find agates and geology students from UC to identify rock samples. My geologist son-in-law explained to me that this vast accumulation of rock was deposited by a tsunami.
Christchurch’s earthquakes clearly shut down many restaurants. To address these vendors’ concerns and as a way to meet demands of workers in the red zone for refreshment, the city council has provided these businesses the opportunity to operate at certain access points. This seemed like an effective solution. While exploring revitalization efforts in Christchurch’s Central Business District on Thursday, I did notice food trucks and trailers near construction sites.
In New Zealand, food trucks and trailers are called mobile food vendors. Such operations in the red zone have to meet certain conditions in order to be granted a license, one of them being a requirement to relocate as reconstruction progress reshuffles access points.
All the walking around last Thursday whetted my appetite for lunch.
Co-located with several other trailers in Re:Start’s Cashel Mall, French-style Coq au Vin Rotisserie caught my eye from the start. A rotisserie was actually revolving at the back of the truck. The menu includes chicken and beef with a choice of salad or fries.
My choice was a very good chicken (☆☆☆½), moist, tender, skin nicely crisped and not too salty. The chicken is available in one-quarter and one-half portions. I dropped my knife but it didn’t really matter very much, the fork easily able to pull the meat off the bone. The fries were an added bonus, thinly cut and perfectly cooked, a fine aioli drizzled over the whole works. I also asked for a squeeze of ketchup on the side.