Loving the birds, spreading the word (Part 1: The Royal Albatross)

22 November 2019

The bus picks us up at our hotel on the outskirts of Dunedin. It’s pretty much full, maybe around 20 people, all intent on spending the afternoon and early evening birdwatching on the Otago Peninsula. Our first stop will be Taiaroa Head, site of a breeding colony of albatross and home to the Royal Albatross Centre.

Driving out along the peninsula we pass several wetland birding hotspots. It appears we’re the only people on this trip who’ve ever been birdwatching before, but the others are lapping it up.

Pied Stilt

It’s as if they’re seeing and thinking about birds for the first time. They crane their necks for a better view, and leap from their seats to take photos on their cell phones.

Mrs P and I wish we could stop for a while. Being confined to a slow moving bus and watching the action through the window is frustrating; maybe we should have driven ourselves out here instead? On the other hand it’s good to see other people – ordinary tourists, just out for an afternoon excursion – enjoying an activity that has meant the world to us for more than 30 years.

Royal Spoonbill

But they don’t all get it. The guide points out a Paradise Shelduck, a good looking bird that elicits murmurs of appreciation from several passengers. And then, out of the blue, one of them pipes up brightly “Do they taste good?”

Do they taste good? For god’s sake, I think to myself, we’ve come here to look at the birds, not to fantasise about eating them. What’s the matter with you woman, who the hell do you think you are, Gordon bloody Ramsey? But I say nothing of the sort, I’m English after all, we’re far too polite to point out to idiots the truth of their idiocy, so I just look away, seething silently.

But I needn’t worry, the other passengers have been enjoying the show, and can see that eating one of the cast would be out of order. The atmosphere is suddenly frosty and pretty soon the wretched woman apologises sheepishly, saying she wasn’t thinking. Too bloody right she wasn’t.


The Royal Albatross Centre is an impressive building, befitting of New Zealand’s first private charitable conservation trust. The Otago Peninsula Trust was established in 1967 for the purpose of protecting and enhancing peninsula flora and fauna. The albatross were then, and remain now, the stars of the show.

Northern Royal Albatross

Albatross mostly breed on small, remote islands. Taiaora Head is the world’s only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross. Relatively speaking they are newcomers here, the first egg having been laid in around 1920.

However there was so much predation and human interference that it was not until 1938 that the first chick fledged. Efforts to protect them increased thereafter, and in 1951 a full-time field officer was appointed. Work at the colony has continued ever since, with the result that there are about 250 albatross on the Head.

Mum and dad renewing their bond; incubation duty is about to be handed over

On arrival we are ushered into an auditorium to see a film presentation on the Royal Albatross, which explains the lifecycle of these magnificent birds and outlines the threats they face. We learn that the adult birds have a wing span of 3 metres (nearly 10 feet) and weigh between 8 and 9 kilograms (18 to 20 lbs). Even more stunning, at seven months old a chick weighs in at between 10 and 12 kilograms (22 to 26 lbs) – it seems amazing they can ever take off.

Prospective albatross parents arrive at Taiaora Head in September to re-establish their pair bonds. Nests are built and eggs laid in November. Incubation lasts 11 weeks, with both parents sharing the duties. Eggs hatch in late January or February, with chicks taking around three days to force their way out of their shells.

The Royal Albatross’ wingspan and a (wo)man’s outstretched arms compared

Rearing the chicks takes several months, with parents sharing the feeding duties. The birds fledge in September, and will be absent between four and six years before hopefully returning to raise youngsters of their own. The parents take a well-deserved year off before coming back here to go through the whole process again.

Threats to breeding birds on Taiaora Head include introduced mammalian predators (rats, ferrets, stoats and feral cats), climatic extremes, fire and human disturbance. To limit the latter, the only public access is via small guided tours – like the one we are on – to an observatory at one section of the reserve.

Up close and personal with Red-billed Gulls. Note the chick, to the left of the uppermost adult gull

So, having been given the lowdown on what we’re about to see, we are led from the Visitor Centre in a group, up a steep slope towards the observatory. On the way we pass clusters of Red-billed Gulls, some just metres from the path. There are reckoned to be around 4,000 at Taiaora Head, and they seem unconcerned by the constant stream of visitors walking to and from the observatory. Mrs P and I are pleased to see them, and also delighted that so many people are plainly enjoying getting close to nature.

The observatory is a large, purpose-built bird hide, with room for perhaps 20 visitors at a time. The windows don’t open, which is frustrating from a photography point of view but absolutely right and proper: this place is all about the birds, and their welfare – including the need to be free from unnecessary human disturbance – is paramount.

Inside the observatory

The view overlooks a sloping, grass-covered headland, and beyond it the sea. There are albatross dotted here and there in the grass, some alone and others in pairs, while more wheel effortlessly above in the brisk wind. We settle down to watch the action, while our guide tells us more about what we are seeing.

Bill rubbing, an important form of socialisation

She reminds us that it is late November, so the eggs have been laid and incubation is underway. There’s a constant coming and going; albatross circle around for a while, searching for a suitable spot, then crash land in an inelegant tangle of legs and wings. Meanwhile, others take off and head out to sea.

Both birds take turns at incubating the egg, and when an adult returns to its duties after time away to feed and stretch its wings, there is a period of socialisation: they dance around one another, moving synchronously and tenderly rubbing their bills together. And then it’s time for the changing of the guard: the newly arrived adult takes over incubation, while its mate takes some time out.

Coming in to land … or maybe heading out for lunch?

It’s a joy to watch the Royal Albatross going about their business, apparently unaware of our presence. It’s also great that so many people come here to enjoy them. Man – directly or indirectly – is the greatest threat to the survival of these majestic birds, but at the same time the only hope for their salvation. If people come here and pay for the pleasure, and if the good folk of the Otago Peninsula Trust spend that money wisely, then maybe – hopefully – they have a chance.

  • Watch live action from the albatross colony. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has set up a webcam to enable us to view the action live, 24 hours a day. Click here for the link.

Q: So, when is a castle not a castle? A: When it’s Larnach Castle

22 November 2019

We have some free time before this afternoon’s birding tour on the Otago Peninsula, so we head out to Larnach Castle to see what all the fuss is about. It grandly styles itself “New Zealand’s only castle,” which is a marketing strapline that’s both agreeably catchy and totally wrong. But that’s the nature of marketing, isn’t it?

Larnach Castle, near Dunedin, dominated by an Australian-style wrap-around iron lacework verandah

When I was a kid growing up in England castles were understood to be very old, grim and grey, bristling with battlements for defence, and towers for locking up captured enemy warriors and random passing princesses. And there’d be a moat and a portcullis, and one of those little holes through which you could pour hot oil and other nasties on to the heads of your adversaries.

On the verandah

Larnach Castle isn’t a bit like that. In the manner of Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where our fair Queen hangs her hat every summer, it’s a mansion built for boasting rather than battles.

Larnach Castle was conceived and constructed in the second half of the 19th century, not by a king or a prince or a nobleman, but by a get-rich-quick Australian banker. William Larnach arrived in New Zealand in 1867 to take up an appointment as the manager of the Bank of Otago. He did well for himself, earning so much through land speculation, farming investments, and a timber business that in 1871 he was able to start on his great building project, the mansion that would ultimately become Larnach Castle.

The dining room

The original plans for the building came from England, and were based on the Gothic Revival style of architecture. However they were substantially altered by Dunedin architect R. A. Lawson, who was born in Scotland but worked in Melbourne before crossing the Tasman Sea to New Zealand.

Lawson wrapped the core of the building in substantial but delicate iron lace work verandahs, in accordance with the Australian style. In so doing he created a new world version of old world architecture, a mansion that is either an icon or a bit of an oddball, depending on your taste.

William Larnach spared no expense in building his Castle. Materials were brought to the site from around the world. There was slate from Wales, iron, ceramics and twenty tons of glass from France, mosaics from Belgium, marble from Italy, bricks from Marseille, Huon Pine and Tasmanian Blackwood from Australia, Douglas Fir from North America and many more European and tropical woods.

The emblem and motto of clan Sutherland, from which William Larnach claimed descent

Nor could locals be trusted to deliver Larnach’s vision: they just didn’t have the skills, so he imported the necessary craftsmen including woodcarvers from England, and stonemasons from England and Scotland. The Castle’s fine plasterwork was executed by two Italians. No expense was spared.

Larnach also took the opportunity to draw attention to his Scottish ancestry. He claimed descent from clan Sutherland, which boasts a wildcat on its crest and the motto “Sans Peur” (without fear). A cat and the motto are shown on stained glass above some internal windows, although the moggie is a pale imitation of a fearless wildcat and more like a cuddly pussy cat.

Said to be the only Georgian-style hanging staircase in the Southern Hemisphere

It’s easy to be cynical (who? me?) about Larnach’s obvious attempt to show off his great wealth, but although the two stone lions guarding the steps up to the grand entrance are more than a little pretentious, I confess I like Larnach Castle a lot. And the fact that it’s here for me to enjoy is thanks to its current owners, the Barker family, who rescued it in the second half of the last century. Here’s what the visitor guide tells us about its turbulent history:

[William] Larnach lived in the Castle with three successive wives until 1898, when he took his own life in New Zealand’s House of Parliament. Larnach’s children sold the property which changed hands several times and was twice abandoned. The grounds were engulfed by second growth when we discovered Larnach Castle and the surrounding 14 hectares of wilderness in 1967. In a leap of faith we purchased this historic property, and its restoration and development became a life’s work for our family.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

View back to the Castle from the garden

Another leaflet hints at how much effort has gone into the restoration:

… when we bought the Castle in 1967 it was empty of furniture, and in a very sad state of repair, with many leaks in the roof. We would like to record our sincere thanks to all those people who have loaned or sold us original pieces.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Your guide to Larnach Castle” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

As we work our way through the building, trying hard to avoid the selfie-obsessed Chinese tour group, it’s apparent that the Castle is smaller on the inside than it appears from outside, like the Tardis in reverse. This is a good thing, making the place feel less cavernous and more homely than we’d expected. I can easily imagine sitting on the verandah, sipping cocktails and watching the sun go down over the glorious garden. By no stretch of the imagination is this place a castle, but it surely is a triumph.

View from the battlements out to sea along the Otago Peninsula; the Harbour is t the left

We make our way up the narrow winding stone staircase to the fake battlements. Here we are 320 metres – around 1,000 feet – above the sea. The panoramic view down to Otago Harbour and along the Otago Peninsula is spectacular. It’s also a good place from which to appreciate the Castle gardens.

Colourful plantings

The visitor leaflet leaves us in no doubt as to the credentials of the gardens when it says:

A South Seas’ Garden between harbour and ocean, at 300 metres, Larnach Castle Garden feels close to the sky. Enclosures and spaces flow, one into another, from open colourful plantings to areas shaded and green, each with an ambience, an idea, and all leading on to the beautiful views.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

Flowery prose indeed. Sounds like hype, but to be fair the gardens really are rather good. While the Castle and its outbuildings were largely William Larnach’s creation, the gardens are mostly down to the Barkers.

An improvement in the weather (at last!) shows the gardens at their best

Having said that, a glass cupola on the lawn outside the front of the Castle dates from between 1927-39, when the property was owned by a Mr and Mrs Purdie.

Internal view of the cupola roof

There’s a bit of an Alice in Wonderland theme going on in parts of the garden, also dating from the Purdies’ time in the 1930s. The Purdies were fans of the English novelist Lewis Carroll and his young heroine, and the Barkers have maintained the tradition.

In November 2007 the Mayor of Dunedin unveiled a bronze sculpture of Alice to commemorate the 40 years of the Barker family’s guardianship of the Castle. The sculpture is by Christchurch sculptor Stephen Gleeson, and depicts the moment when Alice is about to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts, using a flamingo as a mallet and a curled up hedgehog for the ball. And they say the English are animal lovers…

Alice in Wonderland, about to be unspeakably cruel to a flamingo and a hedgehog

The garden is a fine, ongoing piece of work, and although we can see the city of Dunedin just beyond the harbour, the Castle and its gardens belong to a different world. I could happily stay longer here but we have to dash as we’re hoping to spend the afternoon in the company of penguins, and maybe the odd albatross or two.

From the garden, a view across Otago Harbour towards Dunedin

Larnach Castle is a quirky, unexpected find, but well worth a visit … as long as you’re not expecting to see a REAL castle, that is!


Have a Happy Kiwi Christmas (Meri Kirihimete)

With Christmas day just hours away I’m interrupting the chronological flow of this blog to share a few seasonal reflections.

Christmas comes only once a year, but the foreplay lasts for months. I saw my first Christmas tree this year on September 1. We were in a large retailer/wholesaler warehouse outlet in the English Midlands. The tree stood just inside the door and flashed its lights seductively at us as we passed, its baubles and tinsel twinkling merrily. Get into the festive spirit, it seemed to say, spend my lovelies, spend, spend, spend.

It was the first of bloody September, for god’s sake. Have these people no shame? Silly me, of course they haven’t, they’re only in it for the money. My money. Bah humbug!

In the weeks that followed the shops began to fill with festive goodies, and by early October Christmas was becoming inescapable. Unless, of course, we buggered off to the other side of the world.

In New Zealand Christmas rarely raised its reindeer-antlered head. Good old New Zealand, at least they seem to keep things in proportion over there. After all there’s a right time for everything, and the right time to get ready for Christmas is December.

By the time we left on November 28th things were beginning to change, as you can see from the photo Mrs P took at Christchurch airport. In my humble opinion November 28th is still a bit early for Christmas trees, but it’s the season of goodwill so I’ll let it pass.

If you’re reading this you’ve probably been following the blog for some time, in which I case I thank you and wish you a Merry Kiwi Christmas, or Meri Kirihimete as they say in Maori. May your Christmas stockings be full of all that you desire, and your New Year healthy and joyful.

Be happy, everyone.

Down Dunedin way: A stunning station and a gorgeous gorge

21 November 2019

I’ve already driven several thousand kilometres since arriving in New Zealand, and although the car is comfortable and the traffic mostly light there are days when I feel the need for time off from behind the wheel. So today, having battled hard to find somewhere to park in central Dunedin, it’s time to let the train take the strain while we spend the afternoon on the Taieri Gorge Scenic Railway.

Dunedin station, built in the first decade of the 20th century

But before we set off there’s time to explore Dunedin station. And what a stunner it is. Built in the first decade of the 20th century, it’s said to be the most photographed building in New Zealand. Well, I’m not sure about that – how the hell would you prove it? – but it’s definitely worth a snap or two.

The booking hall, a celebration of the tiler’s craft

Wikipedia describes the style as “eclectic revived Flemish renaissance,” and who am I to argue? Externally, the distinctive light and dark patterning is common to many of the grander buildings of Dunedin. Internally, although no longer used for its original purpose the booking hall is a celebration of the tiler’s craft, including a mosaic floor of almost 750,000 Minton tiles.

File:Dunedin Railway Station Foyer.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: User Grutness on en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

Once, when Dunedin was one of New Zealand’s busiest stations handling over 100 trains a day, the booking hall would have bustled with the coming and goings of passengers. Today it’s just tourists like us who come, admiring the architecture before joining a train excursion to explore the countryside beyond Dunedin.

The Taieri Gorge Railway was built in the late 19th century, after the goldrush. The get-rich-quick days of prospecting were over, and new, longer term strategies were required to generate wealth. One of the country’s greatest assets was the agricultural and pastoral potential of the land. To make use of it the interior of the country had to be opened up, but in some areas road transport was impossibly difficult. Railways seemed to offer the way ahead.

Not that it was easy to drive a railway through this landscape. In a country that was just a few decades old it was a major feat of engineering to build here. To enable the laying of a track through the Taieri Gorge, ten tunnels had to be hacked out of the bedrock, and 16 bridges constructed. One of those bridges, the Wingatui Viaduct, remains the second largest wrought iron structure in operation in the world.

The gorge is spectacularly scenic, and also very, very yellow, thanks to the gorse and broom that’s flowering at present. But it wasn’t always like this. Neither the gorse nor the broom is native to New Zealand, and like so many other introduced plants they’ve made themselves at home here. We’ve heard them described as noxious weeds, but although clearly not popular with everyone they’re here to stay.

It’s worth pointing out that the grass that is the staple diet of the country’s (introduced!) sheep, cattle and deer isn’t native to this country either. The fact is that New Zealand’s landscape has been changed out of all recognition by the plants and animals that Europeans introduced in the 19th century, and although from one point of view this may be a matter for regret it’s also a fact of life and isn’t going to change.

Humpty Dumpty has fallen from his wall and lies shattered on New Zealand’s ancient bedrock, and however much some well-meaning but impossibly romantic folk might wish it were otherwise, nobody can put him back together again.

Postscript: Dunedin Station. In January 2020 Ms Liz, who blogs out of Tapanui in West Otago, posted a number of photographs which show in more detail the glories of Dunedin Station. You can see her posts here and here. And earlier in January Liz posted about her own trip on the Taieri Gorge Railway, travelling further than us – all the way to the end of the line at Middlemarch. All of Liz’s posts are definitely worth a look!

A Dunedin Masterpiece: The Toitu Otago Settlers Museum

21 November 2019

We’re in Dunedin to take an afternoon train ride along the Taieri Gorge, but we have a couple of hours to kill so we pop into the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum next to the railway station.

The museum is housed, in part, in a stunning art deco building. Coming from England, where history oozes from every corner and crevice, it would be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that 20th century architecture is inferior to “proper old stuff” from earlier centuries. This, in turn, would be to condemn most New Zealand buildings as unworthy of serious consideration. The masterpiece that is the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum is proof positive that such views are seriously misguided.

The magnificent art deco exterior of the Toitu Otago Setllers Museum

The museum is

dedicated to telling the story of the people of Dunedin and the surrounding area, whose character, culture, technology, art, fashion and transport shaped New Zealand’s first great city.

SOURCE: Toitu Otago Settlers’ Museum website, retrieved 21 December 2019

Although the museum is mostly devoted to social history since the arrival of the Europeans, Maori lives are also represented. Suspended from the ceiling of one of the galleries is a Manu Tukutuku, a bird-like kite which was flown to celebrate the Maori New Year. Made from woven New Zealand flax it’s one of the Maori exhibits that catches the eye.

Manu Tukutuku

The early history of Dunedin is captured by some fine old photographs, which are strategically displayed throughout the museum. The undated image below reflects the earliest days of the city, and gives a clue to the effort needed to carve it out of the virgin bush.

Early days in Dunedin

Early Dunedin was, of course, fashioned largely from timber, and it’s no surprise therefore that the city fathers were worried about the danger of fire. A fire brigade was established in 1862, and kitted out with the latest in fire engine technology. The Pride of Dunedin was built by Shand Mason and Company of London, and brought to the other side of the world to help keep Dunedin safe.

The Pride of Dunedin fire engine, built in 1862

Dunedin’s origins lie in the wish of a group of breakaway Presbyterian Scots to create a vigorous new community, where members of the Free Church of Scotland could live out their faith and advance themselves. The first of them arrived in 1848. It’s joked that these early immigrants from Scotland were looking for somewhere cold, damp and miserable to make them feel at home, and the area they chose – which was to become Dunedin – fitted that bill perfectly.

In another acknowledgment of their Scottish heritage the early settlers wanted to call their city New Edinburgh. Soon, however, that was superseded by Dunedin, derived from Dùn Èideann, the Scots Gaelic name for Edinburgh.

The Dunedin Stationery Warehouse in the late 19th century

Dunedin grew rapidly during the central Otago goldrush, beginning in the 1860s. In the mid-1860s, and between 1878 and 1881, it was New Zealand’s largest urban area. The image above shows the Dunedin Stationery Warehouse at around this time, and reflects a local economy that was doing well.

A Dunedin tram

The development of Dunedin as a city and the wealth that it generated in due course required the creation of a public transport infrastructure, including trams.

The Automobile association of Otago’s service vehicle, built in 1924

Private car ownership began in the early 20th century, and of course with it grew also the fear of mechanical breakdown. When their members found themselves in difficulty the Automobile Association of Otago’s service vehicle – built in England in 1924 – could be called upon to help out. Notice that the yellow colour of this early vehicle reflects the branding of today’s Automobile Association (AA), both in New Zealand and the UK.

Peugeot motorcycle pictured at Waipori in 1906

As well as cars, motorcycles were an important part of the transport infrastructure. The image above shows Dunedin motor agent C. J. Fox and his Peugeot motorcycle in the Dunedin township of Waipori in 1906, while below is one of the museum’s must-see exhibits, a restored 1916 Harley-Davidson.

Harley-Davidson, built 1906

I could happily spend all day here at the Otago Settlers Museum, but we have a train to catch. It’s become evident over the last few weeks that New Zealand does museums well, and this one is no exception. It is, like the other museums we’ve visited on this trip, an excellent facility that deserves to be treasured by visitors and locals alike.

The Catlins: a hidden gem

20 November 2019

The Captivating Catlins is a “hidden gem”.  A place of natural beauty, abundant wildlife, forests, sandy beaches, waterfalls and both hilly and rolling green farmland. With its comparative remoteness and stunning vistas, it’s a great destination.

SOURCE: The Official Website of the Catlins, retrieved 19 December 2019

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? As a general rule I treat the outpourings of the marketing profession with grave suspicion, given that the only reason for their existence appears to be to separate me from my hard-earned cash. But on this occasion they’ve got a point: the Catlins really is something special.

Already we’ve visited several spectacular waterfalls and a petrified forest, and spotted – albeit at some distance – the world’s rarest penguin, but there’s still lots more to explore.

Kaka Point, in the Catlins

We’re staying at Kaka Point, overlooking a sweeping bay of golden, wave-pounded sand which is totally deserted save for a pair of Variable Oystercatchers.

Variable Oystercatcher

Oystercatchers tend to be underrated, so I pop down to the beach and pay my respects. They are probing the strandline with their improbable orange bills, seeking out lunch. The birds keep a wary eye on me, screaming and yelling abuse if I get too close, twice pulling the broken wing stunt to lure me away, even flying straight at my head if I appear to be encroaching on their territory. I love these birds for their argumentative feistiness, for their utter determination to show me that I am simply an unwelcome visitor in their domain.

Approaching Nugget Point. The lighhouse is just visible

A little way along the road from Kaka Point is Nugget Point, a headland boasting a lighthouse dating from 1869-70. The lighthouse is agreeably picturesque without being exceptional, and has operated automatically – without the need for a lighthouse keeper to live on site – since 1989.

Nugget Point lighthouse, built 1869/70

The views from the base of the lighthouse are more interesting than the structure itself. Wave-eroded rocks, which those who know about such things have likened to the shape of gold nuggets, can be seen from the viewing platform. A small colony of fur seals lives here, and we’re pleased to see one lazily exploring the kelp, occasionally blowing bubbles as it does so.

A fur seal works its way along a line of kelp at Nugget Point

We’ve seen plenty of fur seals on our New Zealand expedition but still hanker after decent views of their larger, fiercer cousin, the sealion. There’s a good chance of seeing one along the coast at Surat Bay, so we decide to investigate.

Tropical paradise? No, Surat Bay in the Catlins, on New Zealand’s South Island

When we arrive the tide is some way out, exposing another vast, deserted sandy beach. It could almost be a tropical paradise, until a blast of cold wind reminds us we’re closer to the Antarctic than to the equator.

The tide rushes in at Surat Bay

The tide rushes in as we watch, submerging most of the beach in a shallow film of water. There’s no sign of sealions here, but we spot a young couple walking towards us from further along the bay and ask if they’ve encountered any. They’re French, with only limited English, but the girl talks excitedly about un magnifique lion de mer which is blocking the track just a few hundred metres away. It sounds perfect, so we quicken our pace, determined to find the animal before it buggers off for a swim.

Dozing sealion, Surat Bay

In the event, when we find him it’s evident this guy is going nowhere anytime soon. He’s hauled up at the edge of the sand dunes, just above the high water mark. The animal is huge, much larger than the biggest fur seal we’ve come across in New Zealand. Sealions can reach up to a massive 500 kilograms and are therefore not to be trifled with.

The New Zealand Sealion (formerly called Hooker’s Sealion) is the world’s rarest sealion species. Most live and breed in the sub-Antarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands where they number about 12,000. Fewer than 200 can be found on the mainland, all in this area of the southeast coast where they have only recently started to breed.

Our sealion is dozing peacefully, occasionally flicking sand across his back, presumably to deter the biting insects for which this country is rightly infamous. We’re delighted with our find, but content to admire him from a distance. Sealions are notoriously aggressive if disturbed, and are rumoured to have an impressive turn of speed despite their corpulent build. I, for one, am not interested in testing whether or not the rumours are true.

The Lost Gypsy Gallery: a 21st century curiosity shop

19 November 2019

Let’s start this post with a confession: I’m not very practical. I never build or make things (to be fair, Mrs P says I’m an expert at making a mess, but that doesn’t count). I have absolutely no idea how, or why, things work, and I can’t fix mechanical stuff when it breaks down. And when I was a kid I never had, nor did I ever have the slightest desire to own, a Mecanno set.

OK, a couple of decades ago I did manage to wire a plug. It’s true I didn’t get electrocuted and the house didn’t burn down, but I reckon that was just beginner’s luck.

Blair Somerville and I evidently come from different planets, maybe even different galaxies. Blair is the creator of the Lost Gypsy Caravan and Gallery, a collection of weird, whimsical and wonderful stuff that has no real purpose other than to intrigue and delight its viewers.

The original Lost Gypsy ‘Caravan’ – a converted Leyland bus

He describes himself as an organic mechanic, and calls his creations automators. He fashions them largely from the odds and ends that other people throw away: springs, switches, bicycle wheels, vintage toys, camera bits, circuit boards, old tins, bones, shells, and random pieces of metal and wood.

So although his work is quirky and quaint, with more than a whiff of a more innocent bygone age – an age when cell phones were simply the pipedream of deranged science fiction writers – Blair’s a committed up-cycler, and therefore bang on trend. Not at all what we’d expected to encounter here, in this remote outpost of New Zealand’s South Island.

The Lost Gypsy Caravan is parked up at Papatowai, halfway along the main road between Invercargill and Dunedin, deep in the heart of the Catlins. It’s not really a caravan, just an old Leyland bus, gutted of its original furnishings and kitted out with all manner of gadgets and gizmos that Blair has built.

As you approach the Lost Gypsy Caravan you’re immediately aware this is an oddball kind of place when you spot the bicycle-riding skeleton on the sidewalk. Mrs P cranks the handle and we watch him pedal, his toothy jaw snapping open and then shut with the effort.

Nearby a two metres long sperm whale, apparently made from slices of galvanised trashcan, waits patiently for his turn. Again Mrs P does her duty, working the handle until the whale’s body begins to flex and thrash, gently riding the waves of our curiosity.

Close by is the Lost Gypsy Caravan’s mailbox, again in the shape of a whale, this time being ridden by a swimsuit-wearing maiden. A painted message on the whale’s side informs those who care to look that this one isn’t a sperm whale, it’s a mail-whale.

The Lost Gypsy Caravan’s mail-whale

Clearly this isn’t going to resemble any gallery we’ve previously visited. We’re venturing into unknown territory, unsure what to expect.

Next to the steps leading into the caravan is a large notice saying “There are many temptations in life, this button is one of them … ” Beneath the notice sits a button, small, white, inviting, oh-so-tempting.

What harm could there be? I ask myself, but before I have time to answer a young lady next to me decides to find out. She presses the button, then squeals with shock and delight as a jet of cold water blasts the back of her head.

And that sums up the Lost Gypsy Caravan experience, at the same both completely pointless and totally captivating, an innocent bit of inventive fun and frivolity in an otherwise dismal world.

Once inside there are more buttons to press (no more jets of cold water, though) and cranks to wind. Each makes something happen: lights flash, bells ring, water gurgles, a tiny pink pig flaps its wings, a row of fabricated chickens peck energetically at imaginary corn.

The walls are plastered with newspaper cuttings and sundry signage culled from god-knows-where. A headline proclaims boldly “Mother of child with pointed ears tells how … I GAVE BIRTH TO UFO BABY.” Sounds like Star Trek’s Mr Spock has been playing away, the lecherous old Vulcan.

Nearby a photocopied notice, done in a vintage typeface, reads “This room is equipped with ‘Edison Electric Light.’ Do not attempt to light with match. Simply turn key on wall by the door.” Makes you think, doesn’t it, once upon a time electric lights were new and unfamiliar, a must-have state-of-the-art technological marvel, the Smartphones of their day.

And to my left, another newspaper cutting warns darkly that “One in two hundred Americans is from outer space.” So few? I muse idly.

I tear myself away from contemplating the celestial origins of my trans-Atlantic cousins, and look up. The ceiling is completely lined with old circuit boards, presumably culled from bits of technology that have exceeded their sell-by date. Why? Who knows? Who cares? It’s quirky, bizarre, totally bloody bonkers in fact … and I love it.

Although as a kid I never played with Meccano I did have a trainset, so I’m delighted to see a track running in a circuit around the inside of the caravan, varying between waist-high and head high. It’s a little steam engine called the Train of Thought. Flick a switch and the Train of Thought does a lap of the caravan, setting off reactions as it goes, ringing a bell here, turning on a light or two over there, blasting its horn as it rounds a sharp bend. This place is crazy.

The caravan is full to overflowing, so Blair’s creations have spilled over into a garden and The Winding Thoughts Theatre (of Sorts) further up the hill. Here are some larger products of his fertile imagination. Wind that handle over there, and the tin tentacles of an unseen alien beast wave at you from the bushes. Or pedal that ancient exercise bike really hard to power up the screen in front of you: if you’re fast enough your grainy image will eventually appear, sweating copiously.

But my favourite of Blair’s creations is back in the caravan. It’s deceptively simple: a model hand – four fingers and a thumb – rests on tiny flat table in front of us. Push a button, and the fingers drum the table irritably. The piece is called “Impatient outpatient.”

As we leave I spot one final, ironic notice stuck to the inside wall of the caravan. It reads “Having fun prohibited.” Blair Somerville’s a joker and this is his ultimate tongue-in-cheek jest, the parting shot of a hugely talented artist who is without doubt New Zealand’s master of mechanical mirth.

The Catlins: waterfall heaven and sheep flock hell

19 November 2019

It rains a lot here. I reckon I might have mentioned that once or twice already, and the fact that this is quite probably the wettest spring New Zealand has known in a couple of decades is little consolation.

But things have got better in recent days. On the west coast it rained pretty much all the time for days on end, whereas here in the Catlins we at least get periods of cheerful sunshine mixed in with torrential downpours, spiteful hailstorms and banshee winds. And the good news is that, of course, all the water has to go somewhere. They say this place is waterfall heaven.

McLean Falls

Having parked up, the loop track to McLean Falls is meant to take us about 30 minutes, but our excessive activity of the last few weeks is starting to take its toll. We’re both carrying minor injuries, and hobbling along rather than striding out is the best we can manage.

But it’s worth the effort: at 22 metres high this is the tallest waterfall in the Catlins. We hear the tumultuous crashing long before we catch sight of it, white water tumbling heroically over the main drop, then cascading over a series of smaller terraces.

Worshippers in ancient Japan, followers of Shintoism, revered creations of nature which exhibited a particular beauty and power – such as waterfalls. Standing here today, mesmerised by the majesty of MacLean Falls, I think I can understand something of their viewpoint: this place is magical, spiritual even.

A monstrous, ill-disciplined regiment of sheep

Before long, however, we’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Driving to the next waterfall on our list we find the way blocked by a monstrous, ill-disciplined regiment of sheep moving en masse towards us along the gravel road. During our first five weeks in New Zealand we’ve seen fewer sheep than we’d anticipated. And now we know why: they’re all here, on this remote back road in the Catlins, standing between us and Purakaunui Falls.

I stop, kill the engine and wait for matters to unfold. The road is wide, so there’s plenty of room for the flock to pass safely. But they’re plainly spooked and having none of it. The guy driving them doesn’t help matters much, leaping from his quad bike, yelling and thrashing the road surface vigorously. With what? A crook? A branch torn from a nearby tree? A whip, maybe? I can’t quite see what Mr Whippy’s using – there are several hundred sheep in the way – but he’s causing a commotion, making one hell of a noise. And all to no good purpose.

The sheep are panicking, eyes bulging, milling around frantically. They don’t have the courage – or the wit – to move past my stationary Toyota Camry. Eventually a rebel group decides on full retreat, and makes a run for it past Mr Whippy and back up the road they’ve recently walked down.

They don’t have the courage – or the wit – to pass my stationary Toyota Camry

Old Man Whippy’s incensed, and sends his demented sheepdog off in pursuit. It catches up with the deserters and cajoles them back into the flock. Another gang of malcontents makes a new break for freedom. Once again the dog hurtles off in pursuit and ushers its quarry back into the fold. And still, not one single sheep will venture past my static motor.

Matters continue in this vein for some ten minutes. Mr Whippy’s close to apoplectic now, and I’m beginning to feel sorry for him. He’s trying his best, but clearly having one of those day’s that shepherds must dread. If I don’t take control of the situation he’ll most probably have a heart attack.

I fire up the engine, and edge forward slowly through the mass of crazed sheep, nudging them gently aside. At last one of them slips past me and into the promised land, a stretch of wide, totally empty and whip-free road behind the car. Where one sheep leads the others soon follow, joyously living up to their reputation.

At last the road ahead is clear, apart from Mr Whippy. He’s trying to regain his dignity, pretending everything went according to plan. As I drive past him I wind the window down and smile sweetly.

“G’day mate,” I say to him, waving cheerfully.

What a prat, I think to myself, seething silently.

Purakaunui Falls

“Like a wedding cake,” is how our guidebook describes the 20m high Purakaunui Falls. “Three tiers of splendour,” it goes on to explain, evidently clocking the fact that very few of us have a wedding cake fashioned from white water and mucky grey rocks. This all sounds a bit desperate to me, but when we get there we can see the waterfall is quite special.

The website waterfalls.co.nz says Purakaunui Falls is the most photographed waterfall in New Zealand. How do they know that? Are there armies of men with clipboards stationed at each of the 258 waterfalls on their list, interrogating visitors as they leave, demanding that all selfies be declared and counted?

Or is there a secret sliver of code in Instagram and Facebook, code that logs all photos of New Zealand waterfalls on to a mysterious Excel spreadsheet at waterfalls.co.nz head office?

Or maybe it’s just fake news, which seems to be all the rage these days? Whatever, Purakaunui Falls is pleasing to the eye and deafening to the ear, and definitely worth a visit despite our close encounters of the sheepish kind. However there’s no time to dilly-dally as we still have one more waterfall to visit today.

Horseshoe Falls

In fact, on our final trek of the day we get two waterfalls for the price of one. Horseshoe Falls and Matai Falls are located on the Matai Stream in the Catlins Forest Park, within a few hundred metres of each other. Both are given three stars by waterfalls.co.nz, one fewer than Purakauni Falls. By way of contrast Mclean Falls, which we visited first today, rates a massive five stars. So, in other words, we’ve got this all wrong, saving the worst until last.

Matai Falls

“Worst?” That’s way too harsh. In a land blessed by so many waterfalls there are inevitably winners and losers, and in the waterfalls.co.nz beauty pageant Horseshoe Falls and Matai Falls are – relatively speaking – losers.

And yet, if we had these waterfalls back in the UK folk would go wild about them, poets would pen verses in their honour and photographers would snap away at them madly in the hope of getting their work published in the annual Countryfile Calendar. Here, however, they are merely ‘also-rans.’

Which just goes to show that here, in New Zealand, we are indeed in waterfall heaven

Curio Bay: a petrified forest and a distant view of penguins

18 November 2019

We interrupt our drive from Stirling Point to our accommodation at Nugget Point to call in at Curio Bay in the Catlins, a scenic area at the southern end of South Island. The bay is most famous for its ancient petrified forest, which is revealed at low tide.

Curio Bay

A flight of steep wooden steps leads down to the foreshore, and a sign at the bottom tells us that we’re not alone. At least, I hope we’re not. The tide’s out – which is good news for viewing the petrified forest – and if our luck’s in, we’ll also catch sight of a Yellow-eyed Penguin, the rarest penguin species in the world.

Yellow-eyed Penguins rule, OK

As we step out on to the foreshore there’s no sign of the penguins. But it’s difficult to miss the petrified forest, a jumble of logs and stumps amongst the rockpools. Only, they’re not logs and stumps, are they? These are rocks in the form of trees that lived in the middle Jurassic period, around 180 million years ago, when New Zealand was at the eastern edge of the Gondwanaland super-continent. North of Curio Bay, most of future New Zealand lay beneath the sea.

Fossilised tree trunks, c180 million years old

At the time Curio Bay area was a broad, forested coastal floodplain. The climate was semi-tropical and the region subject to significant levels of volcanic activity. It’s believed that massive floods of volcanic debris, perhaps triggered by heavy rain on a nearby barren volcanic mountain, destroyed and buried the forest.

Over time, silica from the volcanic debris gradually replaced the organic material, leaving an exact replica of the trees. People who understand these things suggest that this sequence of events occurred at least four times over a period of 20,000 years, each episode contributing additional material to the fossil forest.

Fossilised tree trunk, showing the linear patterning of the original bark

New Zealand and Gondwanaland parted company around 100 million years ago. It’s only over the last 10,000 years, as the coastline of modern-day New Zealand has taken shape, that the sea has eroded away the layers of overlying sandstone and clays to reveal the fossilised tree stumps and logs on the foreshore.

The stump shows that, at the time of being swept away, the tree was of modest size

The level of detail preserved is extraordinary, particularly patterns of bark. At a quick glance it’s difficult to believe that we are not looking at real, recently toppled trees, rather than rocks in the form of trees. As well as fossilised logs lying on the foreshore we also find stumps, presumably the result of the tree trunks being snapped off and carried away during the violent floods of volcanic debris. Growth rings are visible on some of the stumps.

A distant view of a Yellow-eyed Penguin, safe behind the rope that warns us not to get too close

The area of petrified forest we are able to explore is limited. This is one of the largest and least disturbed Jurassic fossil forests in the world, stretching to some 20 kilometres (12 miles), but the far end of the bay is roped off. We look carefully, and in the distance we spot the reason: a Yellow-eyed Penguin waddling up towards the bushes and low growing trees where it presumably has a nest.

He stops his journey back to the nest for a quick preen

We’re lucky to spot this penguin, not just because they are so rare, but because it’s only 2pm and they don’t normally come ashore this early in the afternoon. It’s not a great view – we can’t get close because of the rope – but nevertheless it’s a privilege to see the third, and rarest, of New Zealand’s breeding penguins. Later on our trip we’re due to visit another spot that they frequent, and hopefully at that time we’ll get better views and better photos.

The making of New Zealand: a Maori creation myth

18 November 2019

After a couple of magical days on Stewart Island it’s time to get the ferry back to South Island, pick up our car, and head off on the final leg of our trip. We’ll be flying home from Christchurch in just a couple of weeks, but there’s a lot for us to pack in before we bid farewell to New Zealand.

A distant view of Stewart Island, from the Bluff lookout on South Island

We drive up to Bluff lookout, just a couple of kilometres from the ferry terminal, for one last look at Stewart Island. From here it seems ordinary, just a dark, inconsequential finger of land hunkering down for protection from the howling winds and torrential rains that torment it, but we know it’s much more than that. Stewart Island – and its outliers – is peaceful, picturesque, a temporary retreat from the madness of the modern world and a haven for native vegetation and wildlife.

It is also, according to a Maori creation myth, an anchor stone.

The hero of our story is the legendary voyager Maui. Maui lived in Hawaiki, the island homeland of the ancestral Polynesians from which they set off in their boats to colonise Polynesia. One day, daredevil Maui stowed away in the bottom of his brothers’ canoe when they went on a long fishing expedition. Later in the voyage our hero threw his magical fish-hook over the side of the canoe, and soon felt an enormous tug on the line. With his brothers’ help he hauled up his catch, and landed not a fish but the North Island of New Zealand.

The Maori name for North Island is, therefore, Te Ika-a-Maui, or the Fish of Maui. In some Maori creation myths, South Island is known as Te Waka a Maui, or the Canoe of Maui.

The anchor chain at Stirling Point is firmly shackled to the bedrock

But of course the Fish of Maui was huge, and extraordinary steps were required to land it successfully. To stabilise his canoe, Maui hauled up Rakiura (Stewart Island) from the ocean floor to be its anchorstone. With his vessel thus secured Maui was finally able to bring up his catch – North Island. Rakiura (Stewart Island) is therefore known to the Maori as Te Puka a Maui, the anchorstone of Maui.

The anchor chain is massive, and spans the coastal footpath

The essence of this creation myth is portrayed in a wonderful piece of public art at Stirling Point, in Bluff. A stylised anchor chain is firmly secured to the land by a shackle, but disappears beneath the Foveaux Strait and heads out towards Stewart Island. The chain emerges at Lee Bay on Stewart Island, where we took a photo of it two days ago.

The anchor chain re-appears at Lee Bay, on Stewart Island

Designed by Russell Back in 2008 and fashioned from aluminium, this piece represents all that’s best in public art, simple, striking, thought-provoking and connected with the place in which it is set. A mini-masterpiece, in my humble opinion.

Before we set off towards the Catlins we take a look at the Stirling Point signpost, just a stone’s throw away from the Te Puka a Maui public art installation. The adjacent signage proudly proclaims that “the world famous Stirling Point attracts many thousands of visitors every year.” World famous? Really? Not in my world, that’s for sure.

The “world famous” Stirling Point signpost

But don’t knock it. The humble signpost is a reminder of where we are, or to be more precise, of where we are not. We’re closer to the South Pole (4,810 kilometres) than to the equator (5,123 kilometres), which probably explains the grey, brooding clouds and chill wind. Moreover, London is 18,598 kilometres away, meaning that we’ve managed to put some serious distance between ourselves and the political nonsense that’s cracking off in the Mother Country right now, a fact for which I am truly grateful.

With a final, wistful glance towards Stewart Island, one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been, we turn and stride briskly back to the car. It’s time to go off in search of the world’s rarest species of penguin.