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March of the penguin: David Whitley

Souvenirs come in all shapes and forms. In this case, a toy penguin becomes a substitute companion that must be rescued — or remain lost forever

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After rigorously turfing out the contents of two bags and a suitcase, I had to admit there was a serious problem. Something very important had gone missing. I either had to accept it was lost forever, or drive two hours in the wrong direction back to the hotel in a desperate attempt to retrieve it.

If it was an item of clothing, I’d write it off. If it was a Kindle or camera, I’d phone the hotel and ask them to post it to me. But this was something more important: Margo the penguin.

Margo had accompanied me from the very first night of my trip around New Zealand. I went to see the blue penguins coming in from the sea at Oamaru, and couldn’t leave the gift shop without buying her.

I generally have iron-clad willpower when it comes to not buying souvenirs — I don’t want a house full of clutter. But stuffed animal toys are my kryptonite. If it looks cute or comically awkward, I’m probably going to end up buying it. And if it has some sort of vague connection to the place I get it from, even better.

My living room is basically a menagerie. Flo the flamingo from Florida, Katherine the crocodile from Australia, Singa the elephant from Singapore are among the dozens of creatures staring out from all corners of the room.

And when there’s no suitable animal to adopt, I end up buying outfits for those already in the family. So there’s a wombat in a rugby shirt, a koala in a cowboy outfit and a monkey in a Seattle Seahawks American football top.

The world is divided into people who think this is freakishly weird and those who end up cuddling and talking to whichever of the animals most takes their fancy. As far as I’m concerned, we need more of the latter, and fewer of the cold-hearted brutes who’ve abandoned their childish streak. The moment you start judging someone for having a teddy by their bedside is the moment a crucial piece of human spirit has died inside of you.

Over the course of a three-week drive around New Zealand, Margo had become a substitute companion, while my wife was on the other side of the world. More to the point, I’d also sent pictures of Margo back home, and it had been decreed that she was the most adorable stuffed penguin that ever lived. Not bringing her home would be as popular as buying tickets to watch a puppy being slaughtered as a birthday present.

So the next morning, I set off early, speeding across the lake-strewn highlands back to the hotel in the shadow of Mount Cook. I parked up and strode into reception, ready to beg for her return. As two huge tour groups gathered behind me, I tried to explain the delicate situation to the receptionist, who appeared to be a working holidaymaker from Japan.

Given the odd nature of the request, a language barrier wasn’t entirely unreasonable. But it did involve having to ask three times, increasingly loudly, as the crowds behind me swelled to an improbable crescendo.

“Aaaaah! PENGUIN TEDDY!” the receptionist bellowed, to the whole lobby. Then he rang through to the housekeeping department and asked me to wait in a chair in the corner.

As it turns out, there’s only so long a grown man can keep up the pretence of not being ashamed about his stuffed animal collection. And, after what seemed like weeks, the housekeeping manager strolled out. He not only had Margo in his hand, but was waving her around as if she was waddling back to me of her own accord.

The sighting of the much-hyped penguin teddy sparked excitement among those waiting to check out. Ripples of applause kicked in, the odd cheer went up.

I had Margo back, and all it had cost me was my last remaining shreds of dignity.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)