Thursday 17 May 2018

The Marvels of Moeraki

I like fish and chips. I’m far from alone in that, of course. But for really serious fans of fish, Moeraki in New Zealand should sooner or later come up on the radar. It’s a snug coastal town between Dunedin and Oamaru, and home to “Fleur’s Place”. Famous foodie, Rick Stein, pronounced that restaurant his favourite place to eat in the whole of New Zealand.

[2-storeyed Fleur's Place across Moeraki Harbour] 
Having a few days to make our way from Dunedin to Christchurch, we’ve chosen to spend a couple of nights in Moeraki. While we like slow travel, I do wonder whether staying that long in a town whose name translates “sleepy sky”, and whose population is around 60, might see us run out of things to see and do quite quickly. There’s only so much fish you can eat! But of course Moeraki is also renowned for its nearby boulders, so we can at least add that to our list.

We arrive in the town mid afternoon, and decide we’ll cook for ourselves the first night. But we still wander down to Fleur’s Place, just across the road from our apartment, to book a table for our second night. We’ve been here a few times on previous trips, but only for a coffee or a quick lunch. However we once experienced an amazing dinner in Fleur’s short-lived Oamaru restaurant, “Loan and Merc”. So we’re keen to have a full, relaxed seafood dinner in Moeraki, knowing we only have to amble home across the road afterwards.

[Some of the Moeraki Boulders] 
The next morning the boulders are first on the menu. As with fish and chips, there are plenty of boulders in the world, but there are not many like those at Moeraki. We park a few hundred metres south of the main viewing area, and walk along the glistening beach towards what looks like quite a crowd of sightseers. As we draw near the throng we start to see dozens of boulders. They’re scattered along the shore as artfully as marbles abandoned by children. But what children they must have been! Some of these “marbles” are nearly human height.

[Wandering among the Moeraki Boulders] 
According to Māori tradition, the boulders are the food baskets and water gourds that washed overboard after the legendary canoe Arai Te Uru was wrecked along this coast. Geologists take a different tack, saying that rather than being washed up on the shore, they are being revealed at the shore as the cliffs in which they were formed erode. We find one half-born boulder in the soft cliff at the back of the beach, and are amazed to think that many more are “in utero” in the swollen sedimentary band behind us.

[The cliff about to give birth to a fresh boulder] 
Their “gestation period” is anything up to a few million years. They start small as an organic nucleus in sediments: perhaps a shell fragment, or a piece of rotting vegetation. The cementing mineral calcite gradually – and sometimes uniformly – grows around the nucleus to form a spherical concretion. These can grow in the sediment until revealed as huge marble-like boulders. They sometimes take on less uniform shapes as they are eroded, with veins of brown or cream-coloured calcite better resisting the weathering.

[Coloured layers of calcite resist erosion better] 
Of course we don’t have to understand any of this to be bowled over by the boulders, as I’m sure are the school group we chat with about their visit here. Eventually students, teachers and carers troop off towards a promised ice cream up the beach. We turn back to continue our wander among the boulders, enjoying their warmly alien presence for a further half hour. Even the Instagramming antics of some visitors – and the intrusion of a drone – fail to spoil our enjoyment of these marvellous “marbles”.

After lunch back at the apartment we download our photos, catch up on social media and generally loll about. But soon we overcome our inertia and decide to go for a short wander on the nearby beach. It turns out to be far more adventurous than we anticipated. During the wee hours of our first night I’d heard a sound that could have been a cow, but sounded more seal-like. I’d promptly forgotten about it, but as we reach a boat ramp in the harbour, there’s a ruckus in the water.

[What's that in the water??] 
Lynne and I simultaneously call out “seal!” And we’re both wrong. It’s far bigger than a normal seal, and I guess it’s a New Zealand sea lion, aka a Hooker’s sea lion, or whakahao in Māori. It surfaces several times, and appears to be playing with something. At first I wonder if it’s tossing sea weed, but then I see that the “weed” has suckers. It’s got an octopus, and far from playing with it, it’s tearing the hapless cephalopod apart. While sea gulls wheel around hopefully, the sea lion thrashes its head from side to side.

[The sea lion tearing apart an octopus] 
We each take up a different vantage point to watch and photograph the cow-sized marine mammal. At one stage it comes into the shallows and momentarily eye-balls Lynne, who is on the beach. I’m watching from the nearby jetty, snapping almost as quickly as the sea lion is eating. Eventually it swims further up the beach before hauling out onto the sand for a post-snack rest.

[Lynne face-to-face with the Hooker's Sea Lion] 
It’s at least 3m long, and has dark fur, both indications that this is a male. We learn that they can weigh up to 450kg. We feel incredibly privileged to be able to watch this huge creature over an extended period. These are the rarest sea lions on earth, and are officially endangered owing to their low population levels.

After the excitement of the afternoon, we decide to head to Fleur’s Place early. Over pre-dinner drinks, and with sea lions still in mind, we discover that Fleur aims for “fresh food sustainably produced”. It’s fresh alright, supplied by the handful of fishing boats that we can see bobbing at anchor in the harbour. We chat with one staff member who tells us that populations of fish and other species on offer here are constantly monitored to guard against over-fishing.

It turns into a long and very enjoyable meal. We’re attended to with great care by the staff, and we end the evening having a good chat with Fleur herself. We marvel at the energy of this 70-something year old woman, who has run this place day and night for the last 17 years. It almost comes as a relief to hear her admit that she’s looking forward to her days off.

[With Fleur Sullivan (centre) after dinner] 
And for the record, “Mr Hooker” needn’t have worried about our meal. Octopus was not on the menu.

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