Rolling south from Christchurch to Otago Peninsula: spotting wildlife and sleeping by the beach
With a huge motorhome, a toddler, snow falling in parts of the country (and few new warm layers) we are back on the road and ready to explore more of New Zealand. We left Christchurch and started driving down the east coast of the south island towards Dunedin, then explored the wilderness of the Otago Peninsula.
The highway 1 runs through the south island east coast and, to be completely honest, it's probably not the most beautiful drive you can do in this country, but it does go through some places worth a stop and pretty areas to camp and sleep by the sea. Moreover, it's full of beautiful places to spot incredible wildlife such as penguins, sea lions, fur seals and many kinds of birds (are you a birder? we are not, so apologies for our ignorance).
The story of sea lions in New Zealand is particularly moving and interesting. They were wiped out of the mainland when settlers started inhabiting this land and the only surviving animals were pushed to the deserted islands south of the country, where nobody bothered to kill them. Those sub antarctic environments are not ideal for these big water mammals, who much rather prefer to live in the mainland because of milder climates and more advantageous hunting conditions.
A few brave females started making the long trip in the sea and gave birth to their pups in the mainland, starting to establish new colonies. The repopulation is taking quite some time, but the effort of the Department of Conservation and these brave animals might slowly be paying off.
Besides mothers with pups, they don't shy away from human contact, and it's possible to see these huge animals in many different locations along the coast, sometimes sunbathing in a busy beach, others catching a wave with some fellow surfers.
We first saw a sleepy sea lion resting on the beach in the Catlins, in the southeast region of New Zealand, about 3 months ago with a beautiful golden fur and soft eyes.
A female, Joy, is known to regularly give birth at a campground where we slept, north of Dunedin, in a spot usually popular with surfers and dog walkers.
Now few also live in Sandfly bay, a beautiful wild beach that takes its name from the strength of the wind moving the sand around. We parked our van for the night on top of this wild bay and climbed down at dusk, hoping to see the few penguins that inhabit the area waddling back home after a day out at sea. We didn't see the little birds but we could enjoy the spectacle of huge sea lions brought back to shore by the waves and waddling in the the dunes to spend the night.
There are many other places where is possible to spot penguins, such as the Albatros centre in the Otago peninsula, in Caroline bay north of Timaru (this one for free!) and at the Oamaru Penguin centre. Here we actually saw an impressive, and frankly quite stinky, colony of fur seals hanging out lazily during the day.
Moreover, in the tip of the Otago Peninsula, the Albatros centre is a great place to know more about these huge birds. This is the only mainland left where they still live.
The decision of continuing to travel "vanlife style' was the best we could take. We love the freedom that comes from it and-honestly-also the comfort. Because of Covid and being low season, we could rent at a very low price a big and comfortable motorhome, with heating and quite some space. It’s great to spend cozy afternoon and evenings inside after the sun sets, with space for everybody to play, work, chill and cook. Freedom camping in NZ is permitted in many designated areas, meaning you won't need to pay extra for a campsite for many nights, and you are able to sleep in beautiful sites in the nature, lulled by the sounds of the waves.
Where we slept:
The first day we drove until Timaru and slept south of the city, in Patiti point. There is a quiet carpark by the beach with an incredible sunrise view.
The following day we slept in the Warrington reserve, north of Dunedin. There is a free campsite where loads of surfers stop, a big playground (a plus for us) and it's the place where Joy comes to give birth to her pups! We didn't see her tho.
The third day we stopped in Sandfly bay. There is a parking lot on top of the beach. A steep but beautiful hike down leads to the wild beach inhabited by many sea lions and a few yellow-eyed penguins.