Tip for travelers: If you’re in a youth hostel and want the TV room to yourself, turn on the news. Like bug spray to a cloud of gnats. 

Between Invercargill and Dunedin – a pair of Scottish settlements on the southern and southeastern coasts – we made two major stops. First at the Petrified Forest of Curio Bay, and then at Nugget Point.


Kiwis have an insatiable curiosity for all things biological and anthropological in their island’s history, to the degree that their newspapers actually carry science news on the front page. (They also regularly have climate change news, quite a stunner.) This is how we learned of the Petrified Forest, a cove of rock stumps visible at low tide in the quiet, tucked-away inlet of Curio Bay some 150 kilometers south of Dunedin.


The “forest” is a low-lying field of fossilized trees of a genus unknown to science (the precursor to kauri and matai, perhaps) that is about 180 million years old. It is littered with rubbery strands of snakelike kelp and splotched with green and orange lichen. Black oystercatchers, needlelike beaks perpetually pointed at the water, like the area for a hunting ground. As do the gulls, of course. The smell of dead and dying marine life permeates the place, the result of so much kelp baking in the sun.


What’s really special about the area – besides that it is not on most tourists’ radar screens – is how the petrified trees have become stratified by the action of the tides and the wind, breaking off at right angles and in odd shelves, steps, terraces, stumps, cairns and fault lines. Every inch is art.


We had a nice lunch on the stumps and drove on to Nugget Point, to see the seals. Nugget Point is a lighthouse-topped headland that shelters colonies of seals, sea lions and occasionally penguins, and of course a hodgepodge of coastal birds like gannets, shags, terns, gulls, oystercatchers, albatross. New Zealand is nothing if not rich in birdlife.


A path to the lighthouse took us to a cliffside lookout and as we approached, the lugubrious bellow of the elephant seal – followed by a deep, satisfying body-belch – echoed around the tiny islets. This eruption was repeated several times in 20 minutes. We saw a few seals and sea lions treading water below, hidden in the bog of kelp at the base of the promontory: more among the rocks, sunbathing. A seal’s favorite pastime.


Nugget Point is in fact a series of small craggy islands jutting into the ocean. The “nuggets” – an ideal descriptive as it denotes no definite shape – provide real estate with the double virtue of being all but inaccessible to humans, and ideal for hefting one’s fat brown body out of the water for a little relaxation. Hence the popularity of the site.


“I like these nuggets,” I announced. Close by a dowager frowned perceptibly. “I want to buy one.”


“What would you do with a nugget?” inquired Lisa.


“Live on it. Build a lighthouse. Train the seals to attack intruders. Nuggets have many uses. Harness wave energy to charge my electric toothbrush.”


“I believe you are well suited to the nugget life. But oh, aye, ‘tis a loooonely life.”


But beautiful nonetheless. A skirt of greenish-brown bull kelp, attached to the islands, swirls in the currents, giving the appearance of a sashaying dance. Cries of birds echo off the cliffs, competing with the groan of the seals.