Dunedin of the South

Dunedin was once the largest city in New Zealand. Nowadays, no city comes close to competing with Auckland, in size or population. But Dunedin, with its high concentration of old stone buildings, reminds me slightly of Budapest — once a centre for trade and culture, but now diminshed, slightly off the main tourist trail.

Sadly, the grandeur of Dunedin’s old buildings is marred by the fact that (a) they’re jumbled amongst a crazy variety of modern buildings and (b) they’re not even consistent with each other. You’ll see an old building in the neo-Classical style next to one in Gothic style. It’s slightly disconcerting.

Giles and I flew down to Dunedin for a week in mid-July, Giles’s first ever visit to South Island. Unfortunately, both of us picked up a horrible cold at the start of the trip, which slightly hampered our activities. But since the main plan was to potter round the Otago Peninsula and central Dunedin anyway, we didn’t lose out much — would have been much more frustrated if we’d gone for a walking holiday in the region around Queenstown and been ill. So we made the most of it, and the hosts of our B&B didn’t mind us getting up late and making our own breakfast, before wandering out to see the sights.

The weather was mixed — the first day after we arrived was cold but clear, the second day it snowed (though not enough to settle on the ground) and by the fifth day, it was up to 18 degrees Celsius (ludicrous for mid-winter in southern New Zealand), then on the sixth day it rained. The cold in the first few days was an odd experience — as Giles said, it actually felt like winter for the first time since we’d arrived in New Zealand (Auckland’s winter is more like a chilly autumn, compared to typical British winters). Luckily, we’d come fairly well-prepared with many warm layers and gloves etc. though I did buy a merino wool/possum fur hat as an improvement on my cotton-weave beanie (and sometimes wore both at once, to keep the wind out).

We spent the first couple of days walking round Dunedin, admiring the architecture and getting a feel for the place. Luckily, although it’s built amongst hills, most of the streets are not as steep as the one we were staying on! We walked all the way across town to the Botanic Gardens, and visited the Otago Museum, where there’s an indoor live butterfly exhibit (complete with 5 miniature quails running around the undergrowth).

After that, we rented a car, and drove out onto the Otago Peninsula, which extends out from south-west Dunedin across to almost meet the Dunedin coast on the north-east corner. We saw Larnach Castle, advertised as “New Zealand’s only castle”, though it’s really more of a stately home that happens to have stone battlements at the top.

The highlights of the trip, however, were the drive down to Hooper’s Inlet, south-east of Larnach Castle, which was incredibly tranquil and secluded, and two trips to see penguins. On the Wednesday we visited Penguin Place, a privately-owned reserve for yellow-eyed penguins entirely funded by visitors. The rangers there restrict access, so that people don’t disturb the birds, and plant trees to provide them with cooling shade, and privacy. Yellow-eyed penguins are the only solitary penguin species — they refuse to mate if they can see another penguin from their nest, and they won’t come in from the sea if they can see a human being in the way. They also don’t feed in groups. So it’s very sad, but not entirely surprising that they’re the most endangered species of penguin, because they don’t have safety in numbers like the other penguins do.

Many years ago, they lived all round the coast of New Zealand, when the main islands were forested almost everywhere, but now only a few of them live on the Otago Peninsula and several more on the outlying islands in the southern Pacific. The numbers at Penguin Place had been increasing since they started work in 1984, but at the start of this year they had a spate of penguin deaths, possibly due to some bacteria or virus, or because the sea lions were short of food and had started eating them. The sea lions are also endangered, so cannot be prevented from eating penguins if they’re desperate.

All in all we saw 6 yellow-eyed penguins, a good number considering that we only stayed for about 1.5 hrs and the numbers are so much lower this year than last. One penguin was already out of the sea when we arrived, and was standing around by his nest, digesting or admiring the view. Then another two penguins arrived on the beach, and he waddled down to join them. We also saw three other penguins coming up onto the beach and walking towards the other burrows further along. And Giles managed to get several good shots of them.

Then, on the next night we drove further along the peninsula to the Royal Albatross Centre, where they also have a viewing platform where you can watch little blue penguins arriving after dusk. Little blues have a totally different character — they feed in small groups of 3 or 4, and come in from the sea in troupes of up to about 10. They were noticeably fat, from all their winter feeding in preparation for the spring breeding season, and they extended their heads forward and down as a counterbalance, to help them when jumping up onto the rocks. They’re surprisingly agile for their size, given they’ve got such short legs. And once enough of them had made their way to their burrows, they started calling to one another — a wonderful sound, kind of like high-pitched snoring.

The remaining highlight of our holiday was seeing wild sea lions on the sandy beach at Sandfly Bay. We’d turned off the main road because the sign said ‘Seal Point Road’ and we hadn’t yet seen any seals during the holiday, but actually when we got near the beach the signs told us we might find sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins. And, sure enough, once we’d scrambled down the steep sandy hill and stepped carefully across the stream, there were four sea lions at the far end of the beach. Only one of them moved while we were there; the rest were asleep. But it was wonderful to see them, and to watch the one lively one rearing up, though we kept well away.

All in all, it was a relaxing holiday, and we saw some great sights, though next time we’re in South Island I’ll try to show Giles some of the huge dramatic mountain scenery that make South Island so distinctive. But there won’t be so many penguins.

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