Our Day on the Otago Peninsula

If you ever find yourself in Dunedin, New Zealand, the absolute best thing you can do is hire a car and spend a day driving around the Otago Peninsula. This is what my boyfriend and I did a couple of weeks ago and we definitely want to go back, maybe stay a night in one of the many B&Bs – it would be so romantic. (As a point of interest, CNN named the Otago Peninsula as one of the ten most romantic places in the world to propose marriage.)

We picked the perfect day for it. There was barely a cloud in the sky, so the sea was a pristine, sparkling blue and the hills were a bright, luscious green. Spring was in the sunlight that removed the bite from the boisterous wind and, in Dunedin, spring means lambing season. All over the peninsula there were newborn lambs bouncing around, kicking up their tiny hooves, counterbalanced by the comical staggering of the still pregnant sheep about to burst. Everything felt fresh – revitalising – and we knew from that very first view across the Otago Harbour that not a thing could spoil it.

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Our first point of call of was Sandfly Bay, named not, as I had feared, for an abundance of sandflies, but because the sand flies over the picturesque dunes. It’s a very pretty beach – we were satisfied by the view alone – but its main attraction is its wildlife: sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins. There are observation hides you can walk to from which, especially during the evening, you can see the penguins waddling up from the sea. There are a number of wildlife tours available on the Otago Peninsula, but they’re quite expensive. The wildlife viewing at Sandfly Bay is free.

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The Otago Peninsula’s main wildlife attraction is the world’s only mainland royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head, the very tip of the peninsula. This, you most definitely have to pay for, but it is worth it. My boyfriend and I didn’t go because we couldn’t afford it – but then, being poor students, we can barely afford protein – however, I was lucky enough to have been before, with my parents, on an NZ campervan hire tour of the South Island. The best part was seeing the fluffy, white albatross chicks.

Another attraction that we didn’t want to have to pay for was Larnach Castle, New Zealand’s only castle, built towards the end of the nineteenth century by a Scot – well, actually, an Australian. I’m sure the garden is very pretty and the interior very nicely furnished. Similarly, though less spectacularly, you can take a tour of Fletcher House, a restored Edwardian villa, or Glenfalloch Woodland Garden. I suppose these would be good ways of glimpsing the life of the early European settlers, but we found our own window, somewhere not advertised, a little hidden, and free: a graveyard.

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It wasn’t just a graveyard; it was graveyard in a beautiful spot on the edge of a cliff. I spent perhaps a little too much time trying to get artsy pictures of the headstones, some modern and some from the first European families on the peninsula. In the process I found – rather funnily – a grave that had absolutely nothing written on it but ‘RAPER’. No explanation. No dates. Yes, it was obviously someone’s surname, but what an unfortunate surname! And to have a tombstone that doesn’t even bear your first name or the year you died… ‘RAPER’ isn’t even engraved in a particularly interesting font.

After our accidental discovery of the graveyard, we went to find a shop where we could get a bottle of water. We were in Portobello, a charming settlement halfway up the peninsula. To my disappointment, there weren’t any mushrooms, but there were nice-looking restaurants, craft shops, antique shops and second-hand bookshops. The campground looked good too. There was an air of innocence about the place. It was almost twee, but in a good way.

In the shop where we bought the bottle of water, there was a section of what seemed to be local produce – tea or something, I can’t remember – that was ‘organically harvested’. Whatever this ‘organically harvested’ stuff was, it was being sold in brown paper bags that had written on them the following: ‘organ harvest’. I wonder if the person who settled on that unfortunate abbreviation realises why we sniggered so greatly. I’m inclined to think not.

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So we had our water and now we needed somewhere to consume our picnic. (For anyone who remembers our picnic from the previous article, this time we had more with us than a cooking pot filled with peanuts.) It took us ages to find somewhere, simply because we were spoilt for choice, and we are both very indecisive people. We eventually settled on a point that overlooked Mt Charles. The view, naturally, was amazing, but the wind was fierce, and the sun was falling. Yes, it had taken us this long to find a picnic spot. We kept getting sidetracked by various awesome things, including a cup of tea at the Natures Wonders café, which had huge windows and a very friendly owner, proudly proclaiming they had the best view on the peninsula. Seeing as it was at the end of the peninsula, next-door to Taiaroa Head, the view was mostly sea, so I wouldn’t say it was quite the best on the peninsula, but – my goodness – it was still breathtaking.

To be honest, I was at my happiest when we were just driving. Driving over the hills in the centre of the peninsula and driving around the winding bays at the edge. View after view drifted lazily by, each one soul-renewingly stunning. We covered the same ground a few times in our quest to cover as much of the peninsula as possible, but it never got boring. This is why I recommend NZ car hire if you don’t already have your own vehicle. Driving leisurely over the Otago Peninsula was the best day out I’ve had in a long time.

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What to Do in Dunedin – Part 2

As my regular readers know, my boyfriend and I recently spent ten days in Dunedin. It’s a brilliant place, but due to my boyfriend’s mountain of coursework we didn’t get to explore quite as much of it as we would have wanted. We did manage to get a few days of exploring in, however, due to the fact that we were able to borrow his brother’s car. I do suggest hiring a vehicle to explore the outskirts of Dunedin, either an NZ car hire or NZ campervan hire, as buses out of the city are not very frequent.

I have to tell you about the day we drove out to Lake Waihola.

The weather was quite cold and windy, but wonderfully sunny. We had to pick my boyfriend’s brother up from Dunedin International Airport (I know, International – I was surprised at that too) in the afternoon, so we decided in the morning to check out Lake Waihola, which is just a bit further on from the airport, in Dunedin’s backwaters. It sounded nice, I mean, it was a lake. We thought we’d take a picnic.

Thing is, we didn’t have a water bottle, so my boyfriend – ever the inventive type – washed out a milk bottle and filled that with water. (In New Zealand, milk bottles aren’t glass, they’re plastic with handles.) Also, we didn’t really have anything picnic-y in the fridge. We had a bag of peanuts, but it was the sort of bag that tends to split when you open it and we didn’t have any other containers… so my boyfriend put them in a cooking pot.

Thus we set out for Lake Waihola. We drove past the airport and into an increasingly swampish landscape. There are two lakes around there, Lake Waihola and Lake Waipori, and an area called the Sinclair Wetlands, which is a haven for birdwatchers. We also saw a sign that said ‘Waipori Falls’ and thought, “Ooh, waterfalls. We’ll have to stop there on the way back.”

When we arrived, we discovered that Waihola was a small town – well a village, really – with a holiday park by the lakeside. As for lake itself…

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It was normal. Disappointingly normal. I mean it was still pretty, but not for the South Island. In the South Island, you come to expect every natural feature to be awe-inspiringly beautiful. Lake Waihola just wasn’t.

Ah well. It was nice enough in its own way. It had a playground and a slide in the water – obviously a place locals came with their kids in the summer. We saw a pair of teenage girls walking along the lake front (wearing short shorts, so clearly local, as in accustomed to the cold) and eating ice-creams. So, naturally, we wanted ice-creams too. In pursuit of that goal, we headed to the lake front dairy.

(In New Zealand, a dairy is not just a farm with cows, it’s a corner shop or convenience store. I once told some friends back in England that I was popping to the dairy to get some milk and they thought if New Zealanders needed milk, they simply walked down the road and milked a cow.)

We walked into the dairy. Now, heaps of places that do ice-cream in New Zealand will offer you a choice of a normal cone or a more expensive waffle cone – it’s not uncommon. My boyfriend casually asked the lady behind the counter if she had any waffle cones and the look she gave him…

She paused, her face frozen in a sneer of surprise and disgust, and then said in a voice heavy with disdain, “You’re in New Zealand.”

I almost laughed, but I was too shocked. I wasn’t at all miffed that there weren’t any waffle cones. I wanted to say, “No, we’re in Waihola,” and ask if she’d ever left it, but refrained. My boyfriend was quite put out at being treated like a rich, ignorant tourist asking for caviar. He’s from Auckland. Now, people from the rest of New Zealand often regard Aucklanders as snobs, calling them Jafas (JAFA = Just Another F**king Aucklander), but, as my boyfriend emphatically pointed out as we left the dairy, he’s a West Aucklander, which is a whole world of difference.

If you’ve ever seen the hit Kiwi show Outrageous Fortune, they’re Westies. Or the fantastically funny New Zealand film Savage Honeymoon. They’re basically all pot-smoking, ex-hippy alcoholics with a penchant for goods that have fallen off the back of a truck. Come harvest time, police helicopters scour the West looking for patches of weed. But the best folks you could ever hope to party with.

When we’d finished our ice-creams, my boyfriend proceeded to drink his water out of his old milk bottle and he felt much better for it.

There wasn’t much else to do at Lake Waihola, so we got back in the car and headed back towards the airport, turning off down the road that pointed to Waipori Falls. The thing is we never found Waipori Falls.

We were on the right road – we were sure of it – an unsealed road that snaked up into the hills, through the bush and along the side of the Waipori River. A road that got more windy, more narrow and more on the edge of a cliff. We drove and we drove and we drove. Through a tunnel of trees that dappled the road with sunlight. Nothing. We drove. A huge silo. A hazard sign. We joked that we were entering a super villain’s secret lair. We drove some more. Still no sign of any waterfalls.

More sinister-looking buildings. We’d been driving along this narrow, windy, unsealed road at the top of a cliff for over half an hour now. Where were these bloody waterfalls?

We soon realised that we had to abandon our quest, or we’d leave a certain someone waiting angrily at the airport, so we turned around (with difficultly) and headed back. At least we’d come across one or two scenic lookouts over the river. We resolved to solve the mystery of Waipori Falls later with the aid of Google Maps.

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Upon doing so, we were forced to discard our theory that a super villain was hiding in the hills beyond Dunedin. The sinister structures had in fact been, as our more sensible selves had suspected, a hydro power station. And Waipori Falls was not a secluded collection of waterfalls, it was a village: a village that, according to a 2012 Otago Daily Times article, has “no letterboxes, no shops, no service station and no street names” and consists of “33 houses nestled on hillsides.

“While there are one or two clusters of dwellings, most of the homes are situated far from their neighbours, separated by bush and a tangle of twisting roads. It was established by the Waipori Falls Company in 1902 to house workers building the company’s hydro electric generation scheme on the Waipori River, although most of the homes date from much more recent decades.”  You can read the whole article here – go on, it’s interesting.

The bush around the village is a popular spot for pig hunting. You can also fish, kayak, watch birds, tramp and go mountain biking.

There is a waterfall at Waipori Falls, but it’s called Crystal Waterfall. The photos of it are very pretty. I wish we’d actually gotten to see it.

But then we might have been kidnapped and skinned by a reclusive serial killer.

Next week: our day on the Otago Peninsula, featuring a couple of funny stories and an abundance of gorgeous views.

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What to Do in Dunedin – Part 1

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Memorial for the Otago soldiers who died in the Boer War

Dunedin is a cool little city, a web of old buildings embraced by rolling, emerald hills with a view over the spectacular Otago Harbour. My boyfriend and I just spent ten days there, and even though we didn’t have much money to spare we had an absolutely brilliant time.

We stayed with my boyfriend’s brother, so our accommodation was free, and we were allowed the use of his van, which saved us the cost of hiring a car. If you ever find yourself in Dunedin, though, I really do recommend hiring a car, as the best experience we had was the day we took a relaxed drive around the Otago Peninsula, going at our own pace, discovering breathtaking views and interesting nooks and crannies.

We flew directly to Dunedin from Auckland Airport, and as we were coming in to land I marvelled at how green the landscape below was – green with patches of wonderfully bright yellow. I later asked what these striking yellow bushes were – gorse – and was told that people were trying to get rid of them. Dunedin was settled in the nineteenth century by Scots, and they brought the gorse with them to use as hedges, but it spread like the triffids. I hope it doesn’t get eradicated. It’s part of what makes the landscape around Dunedin so different from Auckland.

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This photograph fails to capture just how strikingly yellow the gorse is.

So anyway the plane came in to land on a runway that was surrounded by cows and we were picked up by my boyfriend’s brother, excited and eager to show us what life in Dunedin is all about: drinking.

Dunedin is a city populated by students. It’s apparently “dead” during the summer holidays, but during the semester time it hums with live music and a party atmosphere. Now my boyfriend and I aren’t the sort to get drunk and party, (in fact on our only Saturday night in Dunedin we stayed in and did work,) but I can state confidently that the pub scene in Dunedin is heaps better than in Auckland. The alcohol is cheaper, the bars have more character, the people are more interesting and friendly and the music is better. Also, you don’t see so many young girls dressed like sluts, but that’s due to it being way colder in Dunedin. What you do get is more hipsters.

One pub I have to mention is Queens. It’s a cosy place with hardly any tables, but lots of old couches and pouffes, an antique lift that serves as a sound and lighting booth, a complimentary platter of chips and lollies (translation: crisps and sweets) and a small stage in a corner. It plays host to a variety of talented musicians, some that are so talented I won’t be surprised if they end up famous – Dunedin’s one of those proving grounds for up-and-coming performers. It was at this bar that I met a young woman with blonde dreadlocks and a nose ring who told me that you shouldn’t shower because the fluoride the government put in the water kills off the brain cells that allow you to dream. Gotta love Dunedin.

So when you’re in Dunedin, get yourself down to the city centre one evening and browse the bars.

The Octagon

The Octagon

At the very centre of the city is the Octagon, sort of like a town square except it’s an octagon and it has a road going through it. It’s got nice buildings around it and feels quite British.

Like any town hall in Britain

Like any town hall in Britain

In fact, the whole city feels quite British. I suppose that’s due to it being settled by Scots. There are heaps of old, stone churches, which is unusual for New Zealand and made me feel like I was home in England.

The First Church of Dunedin

The First Church of Dunedin

The shopping in Dunedin is great. There’s pretty much one road of shops that stretches off from the Octagon and I groaned at the fact I didn’t have any money to spend. Happily, Dunedin has lots (and I mean lots) of second-hand shops – clothes, antiques, books – and I managed to make a few purchases I didn’t have to feel guilty about.

There’s lots of things to do in the city centre besides drinking and shopping. You could gawk at the old railway station and catch the sightseeing train that goes through Taieri Gorge, take a tour of the Speight’s Brewery or the Cadbury Chocolate Factory, (which has a giant chocolate waterfall and smells heavenly,) or if, like us, you don’t have money, you could visit the botanic garden or drive up and down Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world.

If you don't want to pay to go on a rollercoaster...

If you don’t want to pay to go on a rollercoaster…

(Good for me, I’d already been on the train and round the chocolate factory anyway, as my family visited Dunedin on our South Island campervan hire tour when I was a kid, back when I had Mummy and Daddy to pay for everything. Those were the days.)

Ah.

I’ve just realised that this article is already over eight hundred words long and there’s still so much more to say, so I think I’ll wrap it up with a ‘to be continued…’

Join me next week for a drive into the rural backwaters of Dunedin, in which we discover an evil overlord’s secret lair and a xenophobic ice cream lady. And possibly the beauty of the Otago Peninsula, if I don’t run out of words again.

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Market Reserve

What to Do in Dunedin – Part 2

Covering Gandalf and Bear Grylls in Cheese

Hello, everyone – I’m in Dunedin at the moment!

The last time I was here was nearly ten years ago when I was a kid, and we only stayed for a day or two before continuing on to the next stop in our New Zealand campervan rental, so it’s like I’m visiting it for the first time now and it’s awesome.

Awesome – there’s a well-used kiwi word that’s rubbed off on me. At least I’m not saying things like “sweet as”. I mean sweet as what, for goodness’ sake?

Anyway, I’m not going to write a comprehensive ‘what to do in Dunedin’ article until after I get back to Auckland. What I’m going to talk about this week is the Air New Zealand safety video. (My boyfriend and I didn’t end up hiring a campervan in Auckland and driving down like we wanted, as we were constrained by both time and money. Ah well. Flying to Dunedin was pleasant enough and took little over an hour and a half.)

I’m probably a tad late on the bandwagon talking about the Air New Zealand safety videos. They’ve been up on YouTube for eons. The most famous one was the one they made to promote the first Hobbit film: An Unexpected Briefing. You should have a watch if you haven’t seen it.

Yes, it’s incredibly cheesy. But that’s part of its charm. And, let’s face it, who would bother to watch the safety video all that carefully anymore if there wasn’t some novelty to it? I think it’s genius.

The success of the Hobbit safety video led to them using the same ‘cover popular figures with cheese’ principle for their next video, the one that my boyfriend and I got: The Bear Essentials of Safety with none other than Bear Grylls. Again, watch it.

It’s not as good as the Lord of the Rings one. Bear Grylls seems a bit too attached to that massive fish he’s using to represent hand luggage.

There have been other safety videos including Fit to Fly with Richard Simmons (!) and one featuring the All Blacks. Because this is New Zealand. Everything has to feature the All Blacks.

I can imagine if you were a frequent flyer with Air New Zealand, these videos would become incredibly annoying, but for the rest of us they’re a definite breath of fresh air.

Air New Zealand is one of the best airlines in the world and they have a pretty good sense of humour. They’ll be my first choice whenever I need to fly again, (which might be next year – an OE* in Europe!)

*Overseas Experience, a New Zealand term for an extended overseas working holiday, usually taken soon after uni graduation. Yes, New Zealand is amazing and I want to have a family here and grow old, but for young people who’ve been trapped here since childhood, it’s so very small and isolated, and most people my age have a manic desire to GTFO. If I – when I do go, I know I’ll be back.

Taieri Gorge

Dunedin Railway Station

Yes, I’m writing about another gorge. Karangahake Gorge last week, Taieri Gorge this week – I seem to be gorging myself.

Sorry.

I was just looking through some family photos from ten years ago and was reminded of how pretty Taieri Gorge is. Of course, for me, it could never measure up to Karangahake, but my experience of Taieri was completely different: it was by train.

Taieri Gorge is in Dunedin. We went there on our first ever campervan holiday in New Zealand, because my dad is an insufferable train nerd and also, coming from England, we all kind of missed trains, not to mention the beautiful, old railway stations of which there are hardly any in New Zealand.

Dunedin has one. From it, you can catch the Taieri Gorge tourist train, which takes you on an enchanting journey through dramatic scenery. Being twelve years old at the time, I gazed out of the window and imagined I was being whisked away to Hogwarts, which, I suppose, tells you how British the scenery seemed. The journey, for us, was highly nostalgic.

As the train chugged along between lush hills and looming rocks, over meandering water and vintage bridges, I went to stand outside, at the back of our carriage. It got a bit chilly with the air rushing by, but it was thrilling, particularly the tunnels.

060 Reefs CuttingThe journey was quite long, so you get your money’s worth, but I imagine a child any younger than I was would get bored towards the end. Luckily, the train stops to let you get out and take photographs, and you can buy refreshments and souvenirs en route. Unluckily, one of the souvenirs – the one that my little sister had to get – is a train whistle, a wooden woodwind instrument that only plays one note in imitation of the ‘choo-choo’ sound that trains make. Imagine that in the hands of a nine-year-old, especially one that used to dress up as Thomas the Tank Engine.

Thusly serenaded, we returned to our campervan, eagerly anticipating the next stage of our holiday. Considering this is ten years later, I can safely state that the Taieri Gorge Railway makes for a memorable experience.