It has become a ritual in our house. We make tea, find biscuits and then it’s a mad rush to fit as many warm clothes as you can into a bag. Then, as the flask once again leaks warm milky tea all over everything, more warm clothes are found to replace the damp ones which are chucked towards the bathtub on the way out.
Our speed increases as we drive the twisting roads around Portobello Bay, watching the darkening sky on the horizon, scared that we’re going to be late. As the car climbs up the rocky cliffs at the beginning of Tairoa Heads, the person in the passenger seat starts to hold on just a little tighter as they look down at the sheer drop beside the car. But it’s like walking into the theatre after the lights have gone down. Socially unacceptable and you always feel that you have missed something crucial.
At the beginning of Tairoa Heads the driver slows down, as it is obvious now that we are in plenty of time. So much so that the first cup of tea can be drunk in the car as we enjoy the last few minutes of warmth before going out to face the elements. The beach has changed since I’ve been visiting. Now there are barriers and from October to May, a cheerful warden keeps people from startling the penguins. It’s August and tonight there are only seven of us there; a visitor and I, a family and a local who works as a warden in the summer.
With dusk falling quickly we stare out to sea, looking for the penguins rafting into the beach. Every ripple looks like a raft. I’ve only seen the rafting once, so it’s magical when a wave washes a penguin onto the beach. He stands there, looking dazed and shaking himself, as though he is as mystified as I am as to how he got there. The crowd whispers and small children, whose patience is wearing thin, are pushed to the front of the group so that they can be sure to see.
From the hills behind us the other penguins call. To their mates, or to the rest of the colony I don’t know. It’s as if they want to reassure the dazed looking penguins on the beach that yes, they are in the right place, and yes, there is a warm burrow to come back to, once they have run the gauntlet of humans who turn up every evening.
The family is getting cold, and it could well be after the children’s bedtime. They see three penguins and call it a night. The warden, my friend and I stay for another minute. Further along the beach the warden whispers to us in a loud birdwatchers whisper. He has a torch covered with a red filter, which the birds may not be able to see. He points out two animals in a hole to us. It is so dark I mistake a rock for a penguin.
“I didn’t see them,” I tell him.
“One last time,” he replies, and pans the beam to where the penguins have been.
And there they are, one on top of the other, doing what all good birds and bees do in the spring. We all laugh self consciously, and decide to leave them to mate in private. We want there to be lots of penguins for future generations to visit and that won’t happen if we hang around here just when a penguin needs some privacy.
This time we need our torches to light the way back up the hill, and check under the car for passing penguins. A second round of tea and biscuits is passed out and the passenger is given the ever leaking flask to clutch. The drive back is more leisurely as we talk penguins the whole way home.