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 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

Fur Seals on the Otago Peninsula

New Zealand fur seals are really cute. They’re small and brown with pointy noses and long whiskers. They also have an uncanny ability to look dead when they’re just resting.

Fur Seal 3croppedYou can find them in abundance all around New Zealand, wherever there happens to be a rocky shore. You can get right up close to them too, like I did on the Otago Peninsula.

I was twelve years old when we went there on our South Island campervan holiday. The Otago Peninsula is absolutely wonderful for observing wildlife in a dramatic setting.

Not only did we see plenty of fur seals, we saw snowy white, fluffy albatross chicks being nurtured by their parents in the world’s only mainland royal albatross colony.

Fur Seal 2croppedI loved getting close to the seals. (If I look miserable standing next to my little sister in that photo, it’s because it was quite a cold day.) I was wary about getting too close in case it made the seals uncomfortable, but they didn’t seem to mind. They must be well used to tourists.

Other popular places to see New Zealand fur seals are around Wellington, Kaikoura and the Catlins. Supposedly the best, or at least the most accessible, place to see them is Ohau Point, just off State Highway 1 between Kaikoura and Picton, which is perfect if you’re doing a self-drive tour of New Zealand. And if you do the Ohau Waterfall Walk – a few minutes along a picturesque boardwalk – you might be lucky enough to see seal pups swimming up the creek and playing around the waterfall.

Now that would be amazing.

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Flightless Birds and Flying Mammals: New Zealand’s Unique Wildlife

One of the first things you notice about New Zealand wildlife is a distinct lack of mammary glands. The only native land mammals are bats, and I’ve never seen one. They were apparently common in the nineteenth century, but now they’re almost extinct. Blame nasty humans cutting down trees and introducing foreign predators like rats and cats – although my cat would never be clever enough to catch a bat. Do cats eat bats?

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My little sister’s cat, unfortunately taken by cancer last year

The Maori call the bats pekapeka. They’re really tiny – barely bigger than your thumb – and can be found in very few places. One such place is Tongariro National Park, in the central North Island. There are three Department of Conservation campsites around the park, so finding cheap accommodation is easy if you hire a campervan in New Zealand, which I highly recommend. Obviously the bats only come out at night, so there’s another good reason for sleeping out in the wilderness.

Another native New Zealand creature that only comes out at night is the kiwi, the country’s most famous and special bird. It can’t fly; evolution has reduced its wings to stumps, hidden beneath feathers that are more like fur. Like the bats, kiwis are endangered and so rarely seen in the wild, but there are plenty of places throughout New Zealand where you can see them in captivity, such as Auckland Zoo. I saw a couple of kiwis mating there once. They looked like two tribbles stacked one on top of the other. I had to stop myself laughing, especially when a small child standing next to me exclaimed, “Mum, look, that one’s jumping on the other one’s back!”

For non-Trekkies, this is a tribble, an alien ball of fur that purrs endearingly and multiplies voraciously. Also, it is a mortal enemy of the Klingon Empire.

For non-Trekkies, this is a tribble, an alien ball of fur that purrs endearingly and multiplies voraciously. Also, it is a mortal enemy of the Klingon Empire.

Kiwis, scientists have found, are closely related to emus, but not to ostriches. There was a New Zealand bird closely related to the ostrich, but it was hunted to extinction by the Maori long before Europeans arrived in New Zealand with their foreign predators. It was called the moa, and it was huge. I remember the skeleton in Auckland Museum – some species could reach a height of over three-and-a-half metres, more like dinosaurs than birds! The only animals big enough to take them down (before the blundering arrival of human beings) were Haast’s eagles.

No, they weren’t eagles owned by some guy named Haast – he was just the first European to describe them. They’d been extinct for centuries by this point, but they must have been terrifying creatures to behold. They were the largest birds of prey ever known to have existed, and may well have hunted humans together with moas. Maori legend speaks of a monstrous, man-eating bird. Did Haast’s eagles snatch children and carry them off to their nests to devour them? It’s a scary thought.

The mysterious West Coast (Bethells Beach)

The mysterious West Coast (Bethells Beach)

New Zealand no longer has any particularly dangerous animals. Someone was killed by a shark off the West Coast of the North Island recently, but things like that don’t happen very often. There have only been about a dozen deaths by shark in New Zealand in the last two hundred years. Australia’s the death-trap. New Zealand doesn’t have any killer spiders, (although the weta can give you a painful nip,) or any deadly snakes – in fact it doesn’t have any snakes at all. It has a few other reptiles, though: frogs, geckos, skinks and, most importantly, the tuatara.

Like practically every other native New Zealand specie, the tuatara is endangered. Most people think it’s a lizard, but it actually belongs to a far older family, older than most dinosaurs, of which it’s the only surviving example. It has a lower body temperature than any other type of reptile and can live well over a hundred years. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to see a tuatara in the wild, as they can only live in areas devoid of rats, which pretty much limits them to a handful of sanctuary islands that tourists aren’t allowed to trample on. I’ve seen one at Auckland Zoo, though, and, to be honest, it was rather boring compared to the mating kiwis!

A tui, a common sight in our garden

A tui, a common sight in our garden

Not all New Zealand animals are so elusive. There are eels in the estuary, pukekos in park, and a whole array of native birds in most people’s back gardens. I’ve often gone to sleep hearing the sweet yet haunting howls of the onomatopoeically named morepork, an incredibly cute little brown owl, and woken up in the morning to the idyllic tune of a tui. My parents get lots of silvereyes in the tree outside their kitchen window, and it’s always entertaining to watch the fantails flitting about the lawn, flicking their tail feathers.

An absolutely incredible place to go to observe native New Zealand birds in their natural habitat is the visitor-friendly island sanctuary of Tiritiri Matangi. You can take a ferry there from either downtown Auckland or Gulf Harbour, but Gulf Harbour’s cheaper and has free parking, so good if you have a New Zealand rental car. Make sure you book, though, and make sure you take food with you, along with sunscreen, a hat, a raincoat, comfortable walking shoes, binoculars and – if the weather looks particularly nice – swim stuff. You’ll be doing a lot of bush trekking, and it’s nice to jump in the sea afterwards. There are lots of little blue penguins around the shore of the island. If you’re lucky, you’ll even see them in their nesting boxes.

In the bush on Tiri Tiri Matangi

In the bush on Tiri Tiri Matangi

Tiritiri Matangi is a very special island, because it is free of predators such as the possum, which will eat the eggs and chicks of endangered native birds. Possums were stupidly introduced to New Zealand from Australia, and since then they have become hated to the extent that kiwis, (the people of New Zealand, not the tribble-like birds,) will deliberately try to run them over. Their one redeeming feature is their fur… so soft… but as soon as I moved to New Zealand, I had it drummed into me that possums are the spawn of Satan.

So, not having any predators to fear, the birds of Tiritiri Matangi have become bold around the island’s human visitors. One particular bird, a now-deceased giant takahe called Greg, became so bold that, for a time, I referred to the island as Jurassic Park. Takahe are like huge, blue chickens with big, red beaks. They can’t fly, but – Jeez – can they run! A few years ago, Greg chased me and my friends across half the island. When we stopped, it snapped at the bottoms of my shorts and kept leaping up to my crotch. I remember running for ages and, panting, stopping to look behind.

“I think we lost it,” I said.

Then it appeared over the crest of the hill, wings outstretched, legs working like the clappers, beak pointing straight at us.

A New Zealand fur seal (not dead, resting)

A New Zealand fur seal (not dead, resting)

But encountering nature in New Zealand isn’t usually as invigorating as that. The coast is a great place to head to see wildlife, and it begins to get more mammalian. New Zealand fur seals can be observed on many rocky shores around the country, such as the Otago Peninsula. We went there when we were on a campervan tour of New Zealand. It’s a Mecca for wildlife, including a magnificent colony of albatrosses. The very best wildlife encounter I’ve had in New Zealand, however, was just off the coast of Auckland.

One of the dolphins that was riding our bough wave

One of the dolphins that was riding our bow wave

There are a number of companies that take tourists out on ferries to see dolphins, and the tourists are rarely disappointed. My family and I have been on several of these New Zealand dolphin trips and we’ve never had a no-show. Whole pods of dolphins come right up to the boat and play in the waves around it, leaping, diving and engaging in light sexual activity. Once, I was sitting at the front of the ferry with my legs dangling over the edge. One of the dolphins rose from the sea and tapped my foot in a clearly playful way – so awesome! We even got to swim with the dolphins, although, for me, this turned into a rather traumatising experience.

Swimming with dolphins is an activity that tops bucket lists around the world. It’s known as an experience so peaceful and happy it can cure depression, bringing people back to nature and generally being as wonderful as a field of unicorns vomiting rainbows. For me, alas… I got into the water and swam around a bit. None of the dolphins seemed to want to say hello. Then I felt lots of small, solid things knocking into my body, up my arms and legs. I suddenly realised the water was pink, and I was floating in the centre of a massacre: pink chunks of dead fish. Being a squeamish teenage girl (and unashamed ichthyophobe,) I screamed and swam back to the boat, taunted by the laughter of my family.

The day might have been ruined, were it not for the whale.

Typical me, I was facing the other way when its head came vertically out of the water. My mum tells me it was fantastic.

A view from the port side of the ferry

Typical me, I was facing the other way when its head came vertically out of the water. My mum tells me it was fantastic. But more amazing still were the gannets.

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Diving gannets

The sky was thick with them. They came because they saw the dolphins. Gannets have learned that their hunting technique compliments the dolphins’ perfectly. The dolphins gather deep down in the ocean, underneath a school of fish, and drive the fish upwards, trapping them at the surface – where the gannets can descend upon them from the sky. They dive into the waves like golden-headed missiles, so sharp and graceful… The whole boat was transfixed.

You can see a very impressive colony of gannets at Muriwai Beach, (which, coincidentally, is where that guy was killed by a shark,) just a short drive from Auckland City. I’d well recommend it – they’re absolutely beautiful birds – but seeing them out on the ocean, working together with a pod of dolphins, is a wildlife experience I’ll never forget.