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Valentine’s Day 2015: Death March of the Penguins

NEW ZEALAND | Monday, 16 February 2015 | Views [388]

In what I hope doesn’t become a habit, I feel compelled to write a second consecutive travel blog entry discussing insects. However, unlike the much adored glow worms (or more accurately glow maggots) discussed in my post of a few days ago, today I turn my attention to the most hated insect New Zealand has to offer, the dreaded sand fly. For those of you unfamiliar with this little monster, first think of a mosquito. Then, make the mosquito small enough to be nearly invisible and take away any buzz that could potentially warn you of its presence. Make its initial bite five times as painful as a mosquito bite, and finally, make the itch last at least twice as long. Now you know the sand fly.


I have had many encounters with sand flies during my five weeks on the south island of New Zealand. I’ve been attacked from the golden sands of Able Tasman to the breezy shores of Lake Wanaka and beyond. Knowing this, you might wonder why we decided to spend Valentine’s Day in a place named Sand Fly Bay. 


The answer is, of course, Penguins. Yes, penguins. Perennial winners of the world’s cutest bird contest, and heroes of countless animated programs. Even people who could care less about birds or animals seem to love penguins. And the penguins that inhabit Sand Fly Bay aren’t just any old penguins. They are Yellow Eyed Penguins, one of the most endangered penguin species. Six or so pairs of these rare birds have made their nests high on the steep bluffs of Sand Fly Bay on New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula. If you venture there at the right time and you’re very lucky, you can catch a glimpse of one, and if you’re even more lucky and a photographer like me, who loves photographing wildlife, you might even get a decent photo of one.


Unfortunately, the people who made the map we used to navigate across the Otago Peninsula to Sand Fly Bay, didn’t accurately portray that there are actually two roads that access the area. The first one leads to a trail that will get you down to the beach in five minutes. The second one dumps you at a distant parking lot that requires a multi-kilometer foot slog down a series of steep sand dunes in order to reach the beach. Guess, which one we ended up at? To make matters even worse, because we mistakenly thought we were at the five minute trail, we didn’t bring any water with us. As I skidded down the extremely steep hills of soft sand for over 40 minutes on the way down to the beach, the thought crossed my mind that the march back up was going to be killer, but the allure of the penguins drove me on. Did I get my sought after penguin photograph? You’ll have to check my photo website www.billarmstrong.photography in a few days, after I’ve posted my New Zealand photos, in order to answer that question.


I will tell you that I was right about the walk back up to the car. It was brutal. My hiking boots, which themselves were filled with sand, could find absolutely no purchase on the steep dunes.

For every step I took up the powdery slope, I slipped back half the length of the step. My quads, glutes and hamstrings burned as I struggled upward. My Achilles tendons felt as though they might snap from the awkward pitch of my feet on the loose sand. The great effort  made me gasp for air, air which was filled with sand grains from the stiff wind blowing in my face and making the walk all the more difficult. I was so tired and thirsty that I thought I might just drop right there and let the shifting sands entomb me. Using my tripod as a makeshift hiking poll, I finally made it back to the car. By the time I guzzled some water and caught my breath, I realized that I hand’t been bitten by a single sand fly.

Tags: beach, dunes, otago, penguins, sand fly, yellow eye

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