Saturday, August 07, 2010

Dispatch 57 More Oamaru Adventures

14 May - 25 May 2010

As life went on without Richard, I became more adventurous in order to color my solo existence. So, one Sunday, I had heard about a ceremony to take place on the waterfront where the last 1 kilometer of a proposed bike trail from the Alps, (these are the New Zealand Alps not to be confused with the slightly more familiar European ones), to the Ocean was going to be officially opened. As it turns out, this is, so far, the ONLY kilometer of said bike trail to have been completed. And because the Prime Minister, Mr. John Key, is an avid bicyclist, the celebration was timed to coincide with a visit of his to the area and he had agreed to attend the dedication of this bit of the bike trail.

So off I went to join the couple hundred people milling about on a cold but sunny day. Several people were dressed in Victorian garb, something this town is known for as its heyday was during the Victorian era. The gorgeous

limestone buildings of the historic district were all alive with activity. A new historic bicycle shop which has Pennyfarthing bikes was being opened that day and there were several of those bikes in attendance being ridden by people who knew what they were doing. You know the ones, the huge front wheel, tiny back wheel with a seat nearly 2 meters off the ground. I watched as they mounted the bikes, pushing them to get momentum and balance, stepping on a small footstep and UP onto the seat. Smoothly done by those that know how to do it.

I had a vague idea that I might try to meet the Prime Minister as it is such a small town and there really weren’t that many people about. He and his wife stepped off the historic steam train and walked down to the ribbon at the start of the bike trail. I followed along with the crowds and stood while a bagpipe band performed, then the mayor made a speech, then the prime minister made a speech. The latter was a bit sheepish about the “somewhat backward” way the trail was being done, that is, last kilometer first, but he was amusing and brief in his comments. Afterward, he cut a ribbon and borrowed a bike to ride a short distance on the new trail (which ends by the way at the blue penguin center).

When he returned from his short ride, he stood with his wife and staff (if they were security this was truly low key!) while members of the community came up, introduced themselves and had their pictures taken with the PM. Well, yours truly decided, “What the hell,” and joined the small knot of people waiting to meet the country’s leader. Sure enough, my time came and I shook his hand, introduced myself as “An American doctor working here in Oamaru,” and he chatted me up for the obligatory minute or so he spent with everyone asking where I was from and telling me he had visited the area around Seattle and spent some time in Vancouver, BC as well. He was very smooth and gracious and I was, well, THRILLED. I contemplated writing to Barack Obama to tell him that I had met the leader of a foreign country before meeting the leader of my own in the vague hope that an invitation to meet him would be forthcoming and then thought better

of the whole thing. Remember, New Zealand has 4.8 million people and nearly 50 million sheep. Between the people and the sheep, the Prime Minister here would still have a much smaller job meeting everyone! (A little note on the Kiwi language. I have been chastised for using the expression “chatted me up” to describe my meeting with the PM because in Kiwi English, that basically mean “hit on me”. So, let me clarify that the PM chatted with me for a minute or so and was not hitting on me!…)

So, to cap off a truly momentous day, I walked out to the beach where the other penguins come in at sunset and tried to catch a glimpse of them. This beach is quite scenic and the Department of Conservation has built a trail out to a shack where one can watch the penguins come in from above and not disturb them. Once again, I was not alone in my vigil. It was a

cold afternoon but 25 or so people gathered to watch. There were fur seals down on the beach just lolling around. Then a little shape darted around the surf line, cruised in to shore, stood up and began that distinctive waddle that could be nothing else. Shortly after, about a half dozen of the darling little things followed suit. They waddle all the way up the beach, into the bush that forms a steep hillside and climb up. In fact, they climb up quite a ways because we were treated to a close encounter as one of the early birds climbed up the 200 feet of hillside to within 30 feet of where many of us were standing and started to squawk instructions to its mate.

These are Yellow Eyed Penguins and they are quite flash looking with yellow bands through their eyes. They are nearly twice as big as

the blue penguins (so about 2 feet tall as opposed to 1 foot tall).

When Richard rejoined me another week later, Oamaru was in the middle of a “100 year storm.” It rained nearly 10 inches in a couple days and kept raining for another 4 days. Our little town was isolated by severe flooding to the north and south so the major highway was impassable. We had to airlift a patient to our referral hospital by helicopter because the roads were closed. It was an impressive bit of bad weather with big winds to cap it off, but not necessarily the best introduction to Oamaru that Richard could have enjoyed. Finally when
the rain stopped we took a brief road trip to see the Moeraki boulders, a set of stones that are nearly perfectly round that litter a beach nearby. Our drive was still detoured as not all the flooding had receded and several trails had experienced landslides and were closed. We did see fur seal pups up on some rocks nearby, had a nice lunch and headed back to try to see the yellow eyed penguins. Alas, that trail had been closed by landslides and surf was quite high so Richard has yet to enjoy our “other” penguins.

And he’s off again on a second attempt to get the catamaran to Fiji. I’m sure he’ll be back with stories and I might have a few more of my own. I wonder what other celebrities might visit our little town this year?