Day 170, January 25th
The most obscure location on the South Island – The Needles. At least, it is the most obscure according to our guide book, so maybe it’s not quite so obscure anymore! Our guide book warns us of a grueling one and a half hour one-way hike on soft, sandy, small-pebbly beach with no one but our own entertaining selves for company. Well, us and New Zealand’s Navy, the fur seals, which were nestled under the exceptional Gondor-white stones at the end of the beach.
As you might be able to imagine if you’ve spent any time on a beach, the soft sand is pure misery to walk one. Amelia was left fondly wishing for snow shoes to distribute her weight. If used on sand, do snow shoes become sand shoes? Ever read Dune or watched Sahara? Our trudging gait beat out vivid images of sand worms and avalanches of sand. Each step the sand held our feet for a fraction of a second before giving way, making those tiny stabilizing muscles on our knees and hips work overtime. In between the soft sand segments there were long stretches of small pebbles to walk on. It is hard to decide which is worse. The combination makes you think “Oh hey, it sucks to be walking on this sand, I’ll try walking on the pebbles, that’ll be better for sure.” This only leads to superb disappointment when your feet hit the pebbles and slide backwards half a step and vice versa. The endless trudge was very rarely broken up by solid rock tidal shelves. These were greeted enthusiastically and soon became the cornerstone in our game “The Sand is Lava”. Our painfully slow pace meant that one and a half hour trip to the far off Needles actually turned into nearly double that. (This guide book author must have incredible leg muscles.)
Breaking up the monotony somewhere around halfway to the Needles we stopped to gaze at the wide open Pacific Ocean where we spotted dolphins leaping out of the water about half a kilometer off the coast! They were too far away to try and spot details in the lovable creatures to identify them further, but we later learned that the Dusky Dolphin lives in the region and is commonly referred to as the “acrobats of the sea” considering how much they enjoy leaping out of the water. These playful dolphins kept us entertained for several minutes before we began our slow trudge again. From about an hour after the beginning of the tramp we could see the highest pinnacle of The Needles poking up before us, but it was apparent that it was REALLY far away. We looked on as it grew larger and after a lot of tough work and mental effort to keep walking forward under the searing sunshine we had finally made it.
The benefit of having walked so far away from hiking trails, roads, and other human civilizations is that there are a ton of seals here! The rookery was clearly unused to human company and our mere presence sent most of them scuttling and scurrying into the surf. Most of the pups are at least a few months old by now and are no longer the adorable babies. The benefit is that the number of protective mother seals was very low.
While being one of the bigger seal colonies we’ve seen, the combination of lack of seal pups and the torturous effort required to reach them led to us being a little disappointed. Although the same distance, the trek back was only a smidgen better since the tide was receding, leaving a narrow margin of wet hard sand to walk on. What a difference that can make to our walking speed! While the pictures are gorgeous, we both agree that we’d probably never do this hike again. Amelia maintains there are way better ways to see fur seals and that walking on sand (especially for five hours!) should earn a place in Dante’s Inferno.