Many of our best experiences during this visit to New Zealand have happened when we’ve taken boat trips to get up close to marine mammals and seabirds, so it seems only fitting that we spend our last afternoon in the country out on the sea. Our main target is to see some Hector’s Dolphins, the smallest of all dolphin species, but hopefully there will be good views of birds and the coastline, and maybe even a fur seal or two.
As we board our little boat we’re greeted by Buster, the skipper’s dog, kitted out in his bright orange life vest. We learn that he loves his daily voyage, and gets very excited when dolphins are spotted. On at least four occasions the cry of “dog overboard” has been raised, but each time he’s been fished out with nothing injured other than his dignity.
Heading out from Akaroa we spot some White-fronted Terns keeping pace with the boat. We’re pleased to see them, but there’s no time to hang around – we have to find ourselves some dolphins.
We make our way out along Akaroa Harbour, which is flanked by steep, rocky cliffs, some cut by picturesque arches and windows. The skipper takes us in close enough for photos, all the time keeping his eyes peeled for dolphins. Meanwhile Buster’s getting bored, and works his way around the passengers, making new friends wherever he goes.
Before too long the skipper finds what we’re all hoping to see. Hector’s Dolphins are unique to New Zealand, and are classed as “nationally endangered”, with their population thought to be around 10,000. Banks Peninsula as a whole is home to around 1,000 of them, three or four of which have made themselves known to us.
These are the smallest of any dolphin species, adult females measuring no more than 1.4m (4 feet 7 inches) and weighing in at up to 60kg (132 lbs). Males are a little smaller and lighter. At birth, calves are just 60-80cm (24 to 31 inches) long and weigh 8-10kg (18 to 22 lbs). They’re said to look like a rugby ball with flippers, which I guess is just the sort of description that you’d expect New Zealanders to come up with!
To their credit, successive New Zealand governments have worked hard to protect the Hector’s Dolphin. Measures taken include the establishment of the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary in 1988, and the introduction in 1992 of the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations to regulate marine mammal tourism activities.
The dolphins swim up to the boat, follow alongside us for a while and dive repeatedly beneath our hull. They are fast-moving and can disappear below the waves in the blink of an eye. However they’re definitely less confiding, and therefore a lot more challenging, than the Dusky Dolphins that we saw earlier in our travels. Mrs P’s taking photos and I’m on video duty, and we both end up with more images of empty sea than of the dolphins themselves.
Eventually the dolphins get fed up, and swim off to amuse themselves elsewhere. But our fun’s not over yet. As we head back towards Akaroa town we’re pleased to see our old friend the Pied Shag, a handsome bird with dazzling undersides and bright blue eyes.
We soon spot another old friend hauled out on the rocks. The New Zealand Fur Seal has been a regular companion throughout our six weeks in the country, and today’s no exception. They’ve bounced back from the verge of extinction, and – as we’ve discovered – can now be found all around the New Zealand coastline.
Just a few hundred metres from the fur seals is a colony of Spotted Shags. They’re less striking than their cousin the Pied Shag, but nevertheless a good bird to see. The captain gives us a couple of minutes to admire them and then continues on towards our home port, where we must bid a fond farewell to the ebullient Buster.
Mrs P and I have mixed feelings. It’s been another great boat trip, and the elusive, super-speedy Hector’s Dolphins have been something special. Not to mention Buster, who is also pretty damned cute. But this will be the last excursion we will ever take in New Zealand, because tomorrow we’re heading off to Christchurch to catch our flight back to the UK.
New Zealand is full of surprises, but it’s saved one of the best until the very end of our trip. I’ve never seen anything quite like the Giant’s House sculpture mosaic garden. It is, quite simply, extraordinary!
The Giant’s House is a magnificent two storey villa dating from 1880. It was built for the first bank manager of Akaroa, which probably explains why it’s such a grand affair. However it’s not the house itself that’s brought us here, but rather its terraced gardens adorned with various sculptures and mosaics.
The gardens are the work of artist Josie Martin. Although starting out as a painter, in 1993 Josie turned her hand to sculpture. Her website says:
Ever adventurous Josie is mindful of the larger world and other ways of seeing. Josie’s elegant abstract sculptures are seriously playful and a celebration of life. They are surreal, biomorphic entities, whimsical and flamboyant, organic and eccentric. Constantly changing metomorphosing [sic] forms confronting or circumscribing void spaces refer to her interest in horticulture reflecting the zany balance of nature.
Even though the Giant’s House has been recognised since 2018 as a Garden of International Significance, if I’d read that quote from Josie’s website before visiting, it would have put me right off. To use an inelegant and slightly vulgar phrase that we Brits reserve for artistic pretension, it sounds like a load of “arty-farty” nonsense. Sorry, Josie.
But I know now this assessment is totally wrong, and I regret that it ever crossed my mind. Far from being pretentious and slightly preposterous, we quickly discover that the garden here is a work of quirky, creative genius.
It began very simply, almost accidentally. Josie dug up some pretty bits of broken china while gardening and used them to make a mosaic doorstep. And after that, she just kept on going, using broken china, tile, mirror and glass to clothe and populate her garden with mosaic masterpieces.
Mosaics are everywhere, including paths, steps and walls, benches, arches and seats. And scattered along the winding paths is a host of life-sized sculptures, here a lady seated on a bench eating strawberries, there French mime artist Marcel Marceau resplendent in a blue top hat and waistcoat.
There are animals too: look, there’s an elephant and a giraffe peering over a low-slung hedge, in front of which is a wall decorated with images of kiwi. And have you seen over there, a man-sized blue cat playing a musical instrument? The cat is a member of a four-piece band calling itself Kitty Catch-Me and the Rolling Dice … well of course he is, cool cats belong in jazz bands, don’t they?
In front of the Giant’s House sits a grand piano. Fashioned from mosaic, inevitably. The piano lid is held open by two lanky, naked dancers, and inside the piano are living, growing succulent plants. And why not, this is a garden after all.
The piano bears the legend “sweet patooti”. It means nowt to me (I’m an ancient English fossil, don’t you know), but according to my old pal Professor Google, “patootie” is a North American term for an attractive girl or girlfriend, or is slang for buttocks. The piano stool, which may or may not be shaped to accommodate the buttocks of said girlfriend, is supported by four dog legs, and each of its four corners is embellished with a dog’s head.
Do I understand what’s going on here? No, not really. Do I care that I don’t know what’s going on here? Not in the slightest. Life’s full of mysteries, and this one’s up there with the pyramids. And everyone admires the pyramids, even if they don’t fully understand them.
The piano and stool sit on a paved area carved out of the lawn and inlaid with the legend “You never know”. Yes, that’s it, you never know what you’ll find in this garden, just around the next corner or lurking behind a nearby bush. This place is quirky, crazy … totally bloody bonkers, in fact. And I love it.
Everyone else loves it too. Everywhere we see visitors smiling, chuckling and sometimes laughing uproariously. There’s a spring in their step as they move between the exhibits, pointing out quirky little details and animatedly discussing the sculptures with their fellows.
The essence of art is about how we see the world. Some art is deadly serious, encouraging us to reflect on matters of life and death. The Giant’s House garden isn’t serious at all: it’s about the joy of living and laughter, showing us reasons to be cheerful in the most mundane of subjects and situations.
Nobody other than the world’s unreconstructed misery-guts could spend an hour or two in the gardens at the Giant’s House without having their spirits lifted. This place is truly magical.
We head out from Akaroa further around Banks Peninsula towards the tiny village of Okains Bay. On the way we call in at the Akaroa lighthouse. The six-sided wooded structure dates from 1878-79, and originally stood at the entrance to Akaroa harbour. In 1977 it was replaced by an automated lighthouse, and the following year a Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed in Akaroa. The Society arranged for the original lighthouse to be dismantled and re-assembled on its present site. It’s possibly the most impressive of all the lighthouses we’ve seen in New Zealand, even if it is in the “wrong place”.
The main purpose of our drive this morning is to visit the Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum. The museum incorporates a range of replica and relocated heritage buildings, the most striking of which is the whare whakairo, or carved meeting house. According to the Culture Trip website the whare whakairo is probably the most iconic building of all native Maori architecture, playing a pivotal role in the day to day life of a tribe’s village.
The whare whakairo at the museum is very impressive, and it’s easy to believe that we are looking at something that is deeply embedded in Maori history. But don’t be fooled. As with so much on this trip, things aren’t quite what they seem:
These meeting houses weren’t really a part of Maori village life until after the arrival of European settlers. The mid-19th century was a time of social, political and spiritual change. There was much selling of land to the settlers coming over from Great Britain, and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and Christianity all created a need for discussions within and between communities …
The whare whakairo is a larger and more elaborate version of earlier house designs such as the wharepuni (sleeping house) and pātaka (storehouse). It is not an ancient form of architecture, but seems to have first appeared after contact with Europeans in the mid-19th century.
The whare whakairo at the museum was built on site in accordance with tikanga Maori (Maori custom). The rafters came from an old meeting house in Tokomaru Bay on North Island, in keeping with the tradition that each new house should have something within it from an old one.
As well as Maori buildings the museum boasts a number of others built by Europeans. The totara slab cottage was built in 1883. Totara wood is hard, straight-grained and very resistant to rot. Such cottages were common in early colonial times, but very few have survived to the present day. The cottage at the museum was destroyed by a storm at its original location in 1968, after which the pieces were salvaged, relocated and rebuilt on the museum site.
Next to the museum on the main street – indeed, just about the only street in Okains Bay – is the historic Okains Bay Store, which dates from 1883. Owned by the museum and let to the tenants who run the business, it is believed to be the oldest continuously operated shop in New Zealand.
The museum’s treasures are spread all over Okains Bay. On the opposite side of the road from the main site is the Riverside Waka Shed. Waka (canoes) are integral to Maori culture, and it’s good to be able to get up close to a full size replica.
Okains Bay is not the obvious site for a museum. Plainly the Banks Peninsula attracts a good number of tourists, but surely not in sufficient numbers to maintain a museum on the scale and to the standard of the Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum? The museum must attract a good deal of dedicated support from the local community. It reinforces the impression that’s been growing on us throughout our travels, that although New Zealand is a young country it takes its history and culture – both Maori and European – seriously. New Zealand “does museums” very well indeed.
Akaroa has a lot to live up to. We’ve been on South Island for around a month, and during that time loads of fellow tourists have asked us if we’ve been to Akaroa. When we’ve responded that it will be the last place we stop off at before flying back to the UK they have – without exception – uttered words to the effect of “Great. You’ll LOVE Akaroa“.
OK, confession time, I’d never even heard of Akaroa until New Zealand in Depth suggested the itinerary for our trip. I now know it’s situated on Banks Peninsula, the most prominent volcanic feature of the South Island. The peninsula is made up of the eroded remnants of two large shield volcanoes, and Akaroa harbour is formed from the crater of one these volcanoes. The name Akaroa is derived from southern Maori dialect words meaning “long harbour”.
The story of Akaroa’s foundation is fascinating, at least to the nerds like me. The first Europeans to visit Akaroa Harbour regularly were whalers and deserters from whaling ships. The European town of Akaroa owes its origins to Akaroa Harbour’s being a favourite port of call for whaling ships, although it never developed as a whaling station.
It was a French whaler – Captain Jean François Langlois – who first decided that this would be a great place to establish a French colony. In pursuit of his vision, in 1838 he made a down payment in commodities to the value of £6 to 12 local Maori chiefs, with the promise of a further £234 worth of commodities to be paid at a later date.
Having done the deal, Langlois hot-footed it back to France to advertise for settlers to return with him to the other side of the world. However the Brits got wind of his plans, and inevitably were not best pleased by the turn of events. They’d lost Calais to the French in 1558 and were still sore about it. They were definitely not about to let the garlic brigade snatch the South Island of New Zealand from under their noses as well. Swift action was needed, so the Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand despatched the ship HMS Britomart to formally claim the area for Great Britain.
Arriving on 16 August 1840, Captain Stanley of the Britomart raised the British flag, and held a court at each of the occupied settlements in the area to further make the point. Job done. When Langlois and 57 fellow countrymen arrived two days later they discovered the Brits were well and truly in charge, and that – as has so often happened in the history of those two great nations – the French had been royally shafted by perfidious albion.
No one would have blamed the thwarted colonists for turning round and going straight back to France, muttering profane Gallic curses as they left. But instead they stuck around and founded the town of Akaroa, although in a fit of pique they named the place Port Louis-Philippe, after the reigning King of France.
And although the name of the town later changed, the founders are said to have left an indelible mark on it. No lesser authority than the government’s official 100% Pure New Zealand website names Akaroa the “most French town in New Zealand” on account of its “French street names and charming colonial cottages”. But even governments get things wrong (!) and a 200 page report written by a professional historian and a heritage landscape architect in 2009 suggests that – street names notwithstanding – the French influence on modern Akaroa is overstated;
The fact that Akaroa was founded by settlers sent out by a French colonising company has misled some into thinking that Akaroa today has a French character. But the 19th and early 20th century buildings that set Akaroa’s character are of a “Colonial Vernacular” style that owes more to British than to French precedents.
It may not be very French after all, but Akaroa is undoubtedly unusual.
Akaroa has the highest density of registered historic buildings anywhere in the country, surpassing even the historic towns of Russell and Arrowtown. Even by this rather clinical measure, Akaroa is a very special place
As we wander the streets on a glorious, sunny day, we can well appreciate why the tourists we met earlier on this trip were so enthusiastic about Akaroa. It oozes character, and even the presence of a lot of other holidaymakers doesn’t detract from its quaint, peaceful charm.
And yet, regardless of the academic evidence to the contrary, the French get most of the credit. If he knew, Captain Langlois would doubtless shrug his shoulders and permit himself a Gallic chuckle at the irony of it all. C’est la vie, n’est pas?
Neither a typical New Zealand town nor a Southern Hemisphere outlier of French culture, Akaroa is one of a kind. It’s a good place for us to wind down as our epic voyage around New Zealand draws to a close.
We’re spending the day out and about around Lake Tekapo. It’s less than three hours drive from Christchurch – New Zealand’s third largest city, population 360,000 – but it’s a different world up here. The lake, and the small settlement bearing its name, lies at 710 metres (2,300 feet) above sea level in the Mackenzie Basin. Standing proudly to the west are the spectacular Southern Alps
Historically this is sheep country, remote and sparsely populated, although you wouldn’t believe it when we drive up Mount John to admire the views. The place is rammed with tourists, the majority of them Chinese. One of them is apparently so moved that she feels compelled to fly the Chinese flag, its yellow stars on a red background standing out vividly against a background of distant lakes and snow-scattered mountain peaks.
The Lake Tekapo area has a reputation for clear, clean air and minimal light pollution, enabling spectacular views of the night sky. In June 2012 an area of 430,000 hectares (1,700 square miles) was designated an International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only four such reserves around the world. Fallout from the Australian bushfires probably ruined any attempt at star-gazing last night, but yesterday’s smoke-haze has largely dissipated this morning and the mountain views are spectacular set against a dazzling blue sky.
The University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory (UCMJO) normally enables scientists and others to enjoy great views of the star-scape. However the two futuristic structures that make up the Observatory looking bizarrely out of place here. Some might regard them as a blot on the landscape.
On the way back down from Mount John we take a side road to Lake Alexandrina. A few holiday homes (known as cribs – or baches – in New Zealand) huddle together along part of the shoreline, and we can see why people would want to chill out here, so far from the hurly burly of the modern world.
We drive on, and are soon back in the small town of Lake Tekapo. It’s heaving with visitors, all searching for the spot that will enable them to take the perfect selfie. The bronze sculpture of a sheepdog, a tribute to the breed that did so much to help early settlers carve out a living here, draws plenty of admirers.
But the most spectacular sight of all is the profusion of lupins. The canal that moves water to the hydro power plant is lined with them. And areas of Lake Tekapo’s shoreline are blanketed with thousands of purple, pink and blue flowers, all set against a backdrop of distant snowy peaks. People wander amongst them as if mesmerised, unable to believe that nature can deliver such a stunning polychromatic bonanza.
And there’s the rub. This isn’t all nature’s work. Man’s had a hand in this, although to be fair it’s more probably a woman’s work. The local story tells of a farmer’s wife who decided this part of central South Island was unacceptably drab. To rectify matters she is said to have secretly sowed lupin seeds along the area’s roads and riverbanks each spring. A more fanciful version of the story tells that the woman concerned sought to emulate Lady Godiva, riding naked on a white stallion while doing the horticultural deed.
Whatever the truth of the good lady’s state of undress, there’s no doubt that these lupins didn’t get here naturally. Officially they’re an invasive species or, to quote a term we encountered a couple of weeks ago in connection with hillsides clad in sulphurous yellow gorse and broom, ‘noxious weeds’. I fully accept that from an evolutionary point of view the lupins shouldn’t be here, but on the other hand human beings and their wretched sheep, cattle and deer weren’t around in primordial New Zealand either. Nor were vines, or even kiwi fruits for that matter.
I agree the lupins shouldn’t be allowed to run amok: they need to be controlled, to be kept in check. But let’s not go too far. These lupins bring a burst of colour into the dreary lives of those who see them, a momentary lift to the spirits. And god knows, with the Australian bushfires raging 2,000 miles across the Tasman Sea and dumping their pollution here, we all need to have our spirits – and our hopes – raised.
Having filled our birding boots at the Royal Albatross Centre, we head off for another special treat: penguins. Everyone loves a penguin: improbable, comical, cute, even iconic, and amongst the non-birders on the bus – that’s everyone except us, it seems – there’s a palpable sense of anticipation as we set off.
Although we’ve been in New Zealand several weeks and seen all three species of penguin that breed here, we’re looking forward to meeting up with some of them again. I mean, you really can’t see enough penguins, can you? And also, our only previous view of the rarest of them all – the Yellow-eyed Penguin – was disappointingly distant, so we’re hoping to do better this time.
The company we’ve booked with has a private reserve on the Otago Peninsula. Our bus first takes us to a cliff-top, from where we scramble down a short but steep path to take a look at a bunch of fur seals. Some cavort in the water and pose like mermaids, while others stand proud on the rocks, masters of all they survey.
New Zealand Fur Seals have recovered well from the predations of the nineteenth century sealers, who almost drove them to extinction. Although we’ve seen them several times previously around South Island it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance once again.
But we have to tear ourselves away, and make our way down to the beach if we’re to see the penguins. Trouble is, the path is long and way too steep for us to cope with, given the condition of our backs, hips and knees, which have deteriorated markedly in recent days. No question, at the end of this holiday we’re going to need a bloody good rest.
Mrs P has been anxious for a while about not being able to make it down to see the penguins at all , so yesterday she phoned the tour company and explained our predicament. To their credit, Elm Wildlife Tours came up with a brilliant solution. They’ve laid on an extra-powerful bus, with loads of torque and grunt, that can drive most of the way down, and – more importantly – back up the murderous incline.
Our guide explains the new arrangements to the group, and although a few mad fools decide the walk will do them good many others join us in the bus. A few minutes later we’ve made it to within spitting distance of the beach, and disembark feeling rested and in good spirits. The weary foot-soldiers arrive a few minutes later, breathing hard, sweating profusely, glowing crimson. Serves ’em right, I say!
We make our way down to the beach and happen across an artificial burrow strategically placed to attract Little Blue Penguins. These guys are found in small numbers around much of the New Zealand coastline. They rarely move on land during the daylight hours, so the best chance of seeing them on terra firma is after dark, as we did about ten days ago on Stewart Island, or maybe – if you’re very, very lucky – in the entrance to their burrows during the daytime.
But to see inside a Little Blue Penguin burrow you get down low, until your chin is almost scraping the ground. I don’t even bother – I’ll never be able to get up again – but Mrs P’s willing to get down and dirty in pursuit of a penguin. And yes, she spots one, watching her grumpily as she lines up to take a photograph. Annoyingly, a random piece of dead vegetation gets in the way, and Mrs P can’t move it for fear of upsetting the penguin. But never mind, it’s an interesting shot even if it won’t win any prizes.
We walk along the beach a few hundred yards, then inland slightly to a small hide – or blind, as Americans would call it – positioned to overlook the route that Yellow-eyed Penguins take on the way to and from their nests. The hide is modest in construction but will serve its purpose: it gives good views out towards the beach and the penguins’ regular route inland, while hiding us from sight. It’s late afternoon now, about the time they start moving about on land, so we settle back and wait for the fun to begin.
And sure enough, as we scan the hillside that rises up from the beach we spot one. The slope’s steep, but he doesn’t seem bothered by it. Somewhere up there, hidden in the undergrowth, he must have a nest where his chicks are waiting for their next feed.
He’s full of determination, hopping between boulders and scrambling through the long grass, hauling himself along with his bill when the going gets tough. If he had teeth, he’d be gritting them. Once or twice he stops to preen himself, removing stray seeds and strands of grass from his feathers. But he doesn’t delay for long: his family needs him.
Finally he approaches the crest of the hill. He turns and looks back at the route he’s taken, the route he takes regularly so that his chicks get a decent meal every day. But there’s no time to admire the view, he still has a distance to travel. At last he makes it to the top. His nest must be there somewhere over the brow of the hill, his family waiting patiently for the Great Provider to return. Our hero continues grittily onwards and disappears from view, never to be seen again.
With a mixture of emotions – admiration at the lone penguin’s courage and endurance, sadness at his leaving us – we turn our attention back to the shoreline. Will another penguin show himself before we have to go back to the bus?
It seems there’s nothing of interest out there, just waves crashing into the rocks and surging up the sandy beach. We’re all scanning carefully, more in hope than expectation. It’s a penguin-free zone, but then we spot a different and altogether more sinister animal instead.
A sealion has hauled out, and is now strutting the sands as if he owns the place. He’s right, I guess, sealions are formidable creatures, the apex predators hereabouts. Worryingly, penguins feature in his diet, and if one shows itself now it may well end up on today’s menu. OK, I know, life’s hard and sealions have to eat. Of course they do, but not penguins and not on my watch, please.
We feel conflicted. We badly want to see another penguin, but at the same time worry that if one turns up its blood and guts will be all over the sand within minutes. Time stands still for a while. The sealion watches and waits, and so do we, listening to the steady rhythm of the waves slapping into the sand.
And then we spot him, another penguin in the surf. He’s battling to reach the beach without being smashed into the rocks that are scattered along it. Finally a wave drives him between the boulders and shoves him belly-first into the sand in an undignified heap. He hauls himself upright, shakes the excess water from his feathers, and begins to waddle up the beach.
The penguin isn’t heading directly for the sealion, but his route will take him too close. Once the sealion spots him it’s curtains: a sealion on land can move surprisingly swiftly; a penguin can’t. We all watch, transfixed, waiting to see how the story will play out, fearing the worst but hoping for the best.
Suddenly the penguin stops dead in his tracks and studies the way ahead. He’s obviously detected the sealion’s presence, and in a second he’s turned 180 degrees and is hot-footing it back to the safety of the sea. We all heave a sigh of relief, and start to relax.
Too soon. The penguin is on a mission, his chicks need feeding so he’s got to find a way past his enemy. He re-emerges from the sea, some distance from his previous landfall, and heads for the safety on the grassy hill beyond the beach. But once again he’s too close to the sealion, and turns back.
We can hardly bear to watch. The longer it goes on the more certain we are that it will end badly, at least from the penguin’s perspective. It seems like he’s on Mission Impossible, only just when we need him Tom Cruise is nowhere to be seen.
But at last, after what seems like an eternity, the penguin finds a path that will take him to his destination without drawing the attention of the sealion. We watch for minute after agonising minute until at last he’s made it, and heads off into the long grass.
We all heave a sigh of relief. We’re emotional wrecks, but at least there was a fairy tale ending. It’s time to walk back along the beach and return to the bus.
However there’s one last treat in store us. While we’ve been watching the drama unfold at one end of the beach, at the other a third penguin has taken his chance to make a run for the nest site. He’s made it over the sand to the grass beyond.
A fence-line blocks the way into some low bushes where he’s probably hidden his nest, and he has to work his way along it until he finds a gap. As he does we get a perfect view of him. The Yellow-eyed Penguin is the rarest penguin in the world, and we feel privileged to get such a perfect sighting.
And as this wonderful bird disappears into the undergrowth, the day draws to a close. We’ve had a great time, and so too have the first-time birders who’ve been caught up in the life and death drama of a penguin on an unremarkable beach in a remote corner of New Zealand’s South Island. Hopefully a few of them have caught the birding bug, and will soon be as passionate about it as we are.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!