McAdventures: Surat Bay

Surat Bay, Southland, New Zealand

We really enjoyed our time in the NZ South Island earlier this year.  It’s such a beautiful place so we have quite a number of pictures of share!  Instead of cramming it all into one post, I thought I’d write several posts, which would allow us to give attention to a few of our favorite spots.  One of those spots is Surat Bay. 

A chance to hang out with some old Aotearoa locals

We had just spent a few days in Dunedin, a city in NZ’s South Island, and we were heading to our next AirBnB in the Catlins region, which is along the SE coastline of the island.  We decided to check out Surat Bay since we would be close by and because it is a known hangout spot for New Zealand sea lions!  Here’s a fun fact: Did you know that prior to human settlement less than 1000 years ago, the mammalian population of NZ essentially consisted only of mammals that could fly here (bats) or swim here (marine mammals)?  Compared to the diverse population of native fauna we have in North American, this seems crazy to me – no native squirrels, rabbits, dogs, cats, bears, etc?!   

The lack of predators here meant that native birds like the kiwi were able to survive in their geographically exclusive Very Cute But Pathetically Flightless (Or Otherwise Ill-Equipped to Live with Predators) Birdy Paradise.  When the Māori arrived from the Pacific Islands to NZ around 700 years ago, their arrival not only increased the mammalian species count up by one (humans are mammals too!) they also brought with them some other mammals, like rats and dogs.  The European settlers that came several hundred years later also brought animals with them – including  cats, agriculture animals, more rodents, etc.  The arrival of people also impacted the land.  Before the arrival of humans, about 80% of the land of NZ was covered in bush (forest) and now it’s estimated to be about ~30%.   As you might imagine, the introduction of  non-native animal species along with deforestation has significantly impacted the survival of many native flora and fauna.  NZ is trying to address this with conservation programs and population control of non-native species, which has worked for some animals but sadly has not worked for others.   If there is a silver lining, it’s that except for the odd ones that people try to smuggle in to the country or are kept in zoos,  NZ does not have any snakes.  The scary snakes are in Australia. 🙂 

Anyway, since sea lions are one of the few mammals that were endemic in NZ before humans settled here, we were excited at the prospect of having an opportunity to see these NZ locals!  

 The signs at the entrance to the bay remind visitors to not interfere with the wildlife and to stay at least 10 m (~ 33 ft) away from the animals.  Luckily, I was prepared for this! Before we left the US I purchased a point and shoot camera with a 30x zoom, which has allowed me to take amazing photos of wildlife without having to get too up close and personal with them. 

The signs also warn visitors that sea lions are not particularly afraid of people and may charge at them.  At the time I read this I thought, “Well, I won’t be getting close enough to them for THAT to happen.”

Keep reading on to see how wrong I was!

 Are we still on Earth?

When we visited it was early January on a windy Saturday afternoon.  With the wind at our back, it took us about an hour to walk to the other end of the bay.  With the wind blowing the sand across the ground, the surreal landscape, and the fact that we saw almost no one during the few hours we were there, I felt like I was on another planet.  The pictures truly do not give it justice. ​


The experience of walking across this beautiful beach would have been enough to have made this a memorable part of our South Island trip.  However, we got lucky that day and we saw many sea lions! One of our first sightings was this sea lion, who was napping peacefully on the sand right near the walking path into the bay. 

Just having a nap…
Looks like a cozy little spot.

We walked not more than 10 minutes before we encountered the next sea lion, who we almost missed because he was half-buried under the sand and he looked like sea debris.  I’m assuming it was a male because he was very large.  However, although he was very big, he was surprisingly fast.  How do I know?  Well, because he tried to chase me! I had been trying to get a picture of him (at an appropriate distance) by standing above the beach on a sand dune in some tall grass.  Apparently I wasn’t doing a very good job of being sneaky because he spotted me and began waddling very quickly in my direction.  I initially assumed he would only take a few waddles towards me but then it became obvious he was determined to charge me so I had to run away.  Being chased by a marine mammal had never been an item on my bucket list, but now I feel like I could call myself a quasi-expert. 🙂

As we continued our walk down the bay, we saw a few more single sea lions as well as several couples.  In several instances, what we thought was just sea debris on the beach was actually sea lions napping. We saw one swimming in the ocean and another  rolling and twisting on the beach.  It reminded me of our dog (RIP Joe!), who used to roll around like that after having had something tasty to eat.


They roll around in the sand to cover themselves as the sand reflects the sun and keeps them cooler.  

At the end of the bay, there are some cliffs that are fun to explore and are a nice spot to stop and snap some photos.  

The long walk back and a surprise!

Although I had enjoyed our walk to the end of the bay, walking back to our car was not as pleasant because  we had to walk facing the very strong wind.  Getting sand in your eyes is no fun and I ended up needing to wrap an extra shirt we were carrying  over my eyes because I had forgotten my sunglasses.

When we got back to our rental car, it became apparent that our sea lion adventure had used up all our luck because we found ourselves with a flat tire. When I saw the flat, my heart sank because earlier that day I had hit the curb when we stopped to visit a cafe.   My next thought was “holy $&#!, we are in the middle of nowhere and we don’t have any cell service.”

Remember that I talked about how Kiwis are awesome folk in our first post? Well, several Kiwis came through for us that day, including the owner of a nearby backpacker’s lodge who lent us her landline phone multiple times to call roadside assistance, the very helpful agent at the road side assistance office in Auckland, and the tire shop owner in a nearby town who tried to help us after hours on a Saturday evening.  

If you’re wondering how the story ends, we put a donut on the car (luckily we do know how to do a few useful things like change out a flat) but the closest tire place did not have the appropriate replacement tire in stock. We ended up just driving about an hour to our AirBnB with the donut.  Our sweet AirBnB hosts lent us one of their cars to use until we were able to get the tire patched on our rental.   AND although I felt like I was 100% responsible for the flat tire, I was later vindicated when we found a nail in the tire while we we getting it patched!

Welcome to our McAdventures!

Kia ora (Hello)! 

Before we left for our travels, we set up this blog to have a place to share our adventures and pictures with family and friends.  I had great plans to write regularly. However, the time has flown by! We left for our trip over two months ago and we are about 3 weeks away from returning home and only NOW am I getting around to writing our first post.  Sorry!  Rest assured that even after we return home, I hope to continue writing and sharing pictures — we have A LOT of pictures ato share! Of course, to keep you in suspense we won’t be showing them all at once. What would be the fun in that? 🙂

The land of the long white cloud

As I write this, we are currently in Auckland, New Zealand.  Auckland is on the North Island. We spent a few weeks on the South Island exploring, but have been using Auckland as a “home base” for the bulk of our time here.

We are here!

NZ is also known as Aotearoa (pronounced like “ow-teh-ah-row-ah”).  Aotearoa is Māori and the word loosely translates to mean “the land of the long white cloud.” The Māori are the indigenous people of NZ and their cultural influence is evident. Māori is recognized by the NZ government as an official language and many cities, towns, and other landmarks in NZ are officially known by their Māori  name.

So if it’s “the land of the long white cloud”, does that mean that NZ is always cloudy? Nope! Since New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere their seasons are flipped when compared to the US. Right now (beginning/mid  March), summer is coming to an end and the evenings are getting cooler and the days are getting shorter. However, the summer on both the North and South Island were gorgeous. The South Island was a bit cooler even in the summer than the North Island (it is closer to Antarctica!) but we were lucky with the weather during our travels there. We did have some days that were cloudy, overcast, or raining, but the majority of the time we’ve been in NZ the weather has been great. 

Just call them Kiwis!

You may have heard that New Zealanders are called “Kiwis”. For some reason, I used to think that calling someone a “Kiwi” was derogatory and offensive. It’s actually not! It’s a term Kiwis use with pride and they use the term to describe almost anything that has an association with New Zealand.  During current and past trips to NZ, our experience has been that Kiwis are helpful, welcoming, and down to earth. Activities like bungee jumping and Zorbing (what I like to call “hamster balling”) were popularized in NZ, so they like to have a good time as well!  

As you might imagine, since we speak English traveling around in NZ has been fairly straightforward language-wise. If you have ever heard Australian English, then you have an idea of what New Zealand English sounds like, but there’s still quite a bit of a difference. Sometimes when I’m talking to someone with a very Kiwi accent it takes my brain a few seconds to process what they’ve said – but I imagine it must be the same for them when they are listening to my American English!  One of the fun parts of traveling to a new place is learning local phrases and slangs. There are so many interesting New Zealandisms that we’ve learned while we’ve been here. Here are a few:

  • Tramping/walking: refers to a long hike, generally overnight.  A day hike would generally be called a “walk”.  However, I’ve found that these terms aren’t consistently used.  The NZ Dept of Conservation has a list of what they call “Great Walks” and if you look at the list you’ll notice ALL OF THEM take multiple days.  So if you’re in NZ don’t assume a “walk” is short and easy just because it’s called a “walk”! 
  • Tramper:  a person who goes tramping
  • Togs: swimsuit
  • Jandals: flip-flops
  • Bach: a small beach or holiday home (pronounced like “batch”)
  • Macca’s: McDonald’s 
  • Chilly bin: cooler (like you use for food/drinks at a BBQ or the beach).
  • Ute: short for “utility vehicle” aka pickup truck     
  • “She’ll be right”: essentially means that something will be fine

Which kiwi came first, the bird or the fruit?

Why are New Zealanders called kiwis? Are they named after the bird or the fruit?  I used to wonder this myself! I’ve recently learned that New Zealanders derived their “Kiwi” name from “kiwi”, the small, fuzzy, brown, and flightless bird that is a national icon of NZ.  As you might have guessed, the word “kiwi” is of Māori origin.  Unfortunately, we haven’t had an opportunity to see these birds in the wild as they are nocturnal and very shy.  I’m hoping we get a chance to see them up close one day because they are super cute!  

A Kiwi holding a kiwi
Source

So what about the kiwi fruit? I had assumed that kiwifruit was native to NZ and that the name was inspired by the fact that it bears some resemblance to the kiwi bird – small, brown, and fuzzy. Nope! Although NZ is a major producer of kiwifruit, the fruit are native to China. In the 1960s, the fruit formerly known as Chinese gooseberries were a major agriculture commodity in NZ. As part of clever marketing strategy  in their exporting markets, NZ began to call the fruit “kiwifruit” (as in “fruit from New Zealand” NOT “fruit that looks like a bird”).  Mystery solved!

Robot birds, dinosaur birds, and IKEA birds

As you might imagine, NZ has quite a few interesting species of native birds and while we have been here I’ve had a lot of fun learning about them. My favorite bird (besides the kiwi, of course) is the tūī bird (pronounced “too-ee”). Notice the white tufts of fur on their necks. Because of this distinctive characteristic, these birds used to be referred to as the “parson bird”. 

Tui are pretty birds, but I enjoy these birds because of the interesting sounds they make.  They sound like robots, maybe even like a certain robot from Star Wars…Apparently they can also imitate sounds and human speech like parrots do, which is pretty cool in itself.

Have a listen to the audio clips I took below.  

While we were on the South Island, we paid a visit to the Orokonui Ecosanctuary near Dunedin. There were many birds there, but one of the most memorable was the takahē.  They are yet another flightless bird native to NZ.  One of our AirBnB hosts called them “dinosaur birds” and I think it’s an appropriate name for them.  They look like prehistoric chickens, don’t they?  They are critically endangered but through conservations efforts it seems like they might have a chance.  

Takahē aka Dinosaur birds

Another interesting bird from NZ is the kea. We learned about these  mischievous South Island birds when we were heading to Milford Sound.  To get to Milford Sound, you need to drive through a one-way tunnel through the mountains. While traffic is going through on one end of the tunnel, vehicles on the other end line up to wait their turn to go through. The kea have learned to stand along the road where the cars are to beg for food.

There are signs in the area asking people not to feed the birds, but people probably do it anyway. One of our AirBnB hosts told us that there was a period of time where the traffic control folks at the tunnel were having issues with the kea moving traffic cones around.  The birds would move the traffic cones to block the traffic going into the tunnel in order to keep tourists in place to feed them.  Pretty crazy, right?

Unfortunately, the kea have a curious and destructive streak as well. They have been known to steal backpacks and other items from tourists and to take apart cars and they apparently seem to have an affinity for rubber parts. While we were on our boat tour of Milford Sound, we saw this kea-inspired poster. I thought it was quite cheeky.

Stay tuned!

That’s it for this post! For future posts we will focus a bit on specific places we’ve visited. I recently came back from a trip to Japan, so expect to see some future stories from that trip as well.  See you back soon!