The Caitlins are not as frequently visited by foreign tourists as other parts of New Zealand. There are not many motels and restaurants are Mom & Pop places. This adds to the Caitlins’ charms. You can drive for miles through villages, farmland and wildlands, with occasional beach sitings, but nothing very commercial in sight. This is what people think of when they imagine New Zealand.
It is not hard to reach. If you fly to Auckland you can catch one of the frequent daily flights to Dunedin and within an hour you are in the heart of the Caitlins. This area is just off of Highway 1, the main route from Dunedin to Invercargill.
After an excellent day of albatross and penguin, I stayed at a motel in Mosgiel, a suburb community closer to the Dunedin airport than downtown. This provided a full day of fun in the Caitlins. You could easily spend two days in the area if you like to hike or want to spend more time on one of the beaches.
My goal for the day was the lighthouse at the Nuggets. (wait for next post!) I toodled around following local signs and stopping to admire views along the way. It was a lovely, lovely day.
I saw my first Yellow-eyed penguin from the hide at Bushy Point, but I was at least a hundred meters above the beach and even with binoculars it was hard to appreciate their unique size and markings. Several times I tried going on a Penguin Place tour and couldn’t fit it in with the Little Blue Penguin experience at the Royal Albatross Centre. I was determined to make it work this time!
Located on a private sheep farm on the Dunedin peninsula, Penguin Place is dedicated to the conservation and welfare of Yellow-eyed penguins/hoiho. Their efforts to restablish habitat and educate the public also benefits Little Blue penguins. I went in the winter months (April-September) so they only offer one tour a day at 3:45 p.m. In the summer months (October-March) there are 90 minute tours running from 10:15 a.m. to 6:16 p.m.
One advantage of going in the winter is the tour group is more likely to be small. There were just a half dozen of us as we bumped in the bus, through the sheep ranch, and toward the trails that lead to the network of hides.
We had plenty of time to ask our questions as we waited in the hide and looked out at the beach waiting for a Yellow-eyed penguin to return. A large sea lion was hanging out on the beach probably sending “stay away” vibes to penguins. We were not disappointed though. There were two Yellow-eyed penguins who stayed on land all day. One was just a few feet from the hide and another was some distance below the hide but away from the beach and visible to us. We also saw several single and pairs of Little Blue Penguins in their wooden hutches along the trail.
All of the money from the penguin tourism goes back into rehabilitating penguins in the hospital and conserving the breeding grounds. In spite of the extensive efforts by people and the NZ Department of Conservation, the numbers are shrinking. When I first took an interest in hoiho there were 400-600 breeding pairs on the NZ mainland, and now there are just 266 breeding pairs. There is also a sex imbalance with three males for every female. It is hard to state with certainty what is causing the decline but it is likely warming oceans and changing food supply. Participating in this guided tour is a small way to do your part for the species. And we need to all make changes to address the climate crisis.
Before I visited the Royal Albatross Centre I thought of the Albatross as a super big gull. They are so much more AWE-some. They are super big with wings that fold twice. They spend most of the lives flying at sea. The young take a year to mature and when they are ready to attempt flight they just step off a cliff without any training or practice! These are just a few of the wonderful albatross facts I learned on the tour.
Our guide was very knowledgeable and answered all of our questions. She said that if we were lucky we would see an adult coming back to feed their chick.
The Centre does a marvelous job of educating people about the unique grandeur of the Royal Albatross. Both the Centre and the bird deserve the adjective “Royal.” They provide many different ways to communicate the size and majesty of this bird. You can see the folding 3 meter wing span in the skeleton, and the stuffed albatross are weighted to approximate an actual bird’s likely weight. One of my favorite fun facts is the full grown chick actually is too heavy to fly, so the parent begins to force them to walk to dinner to get them to lose some of the baby fat.
There are a variety of tours, with the most basic hour long tour at the top of an hour, starting for $52NZ per adult. It is a steep climb up to the glassed in viewing platform or hide. Along the way there are a variety of gulls nesting on the hillside and sheep mowing the grass. I did see people with some mobility challenges making the trek and taking their time. The visitor centre also has a gift shop and cafe. There is ample parking but it is located at the very end of the peninsula, so allow 45 minutes to an hour to get there on the narrow, windy road with traffic stops for roadwork. It is worth the effort.
As I planned my day in Dunedin I read about a restaurant and garden Glenfollach. I went online and made a reservation without realizing that it was Father’s Day Sunday in New Zealand. I requested a booking before noon so I could enjoy my lunch and drive on to the end of the peninsula for the Royal Albatross Centre. When I first arrived there were only a few people already enjoying coffee and the view. By the time I left the restaurant and deck were full of families celebrating fathers.
Because of Fathers Day there was also a 3 course meal option. It sounded super so I ordered it, along with a ginger ale and tonic and enjoyed the attention to details in the venue decor and table setting.
To say my meal was delicious is inadequate. Every course was very interesting and combined flavors and textures beautifully. I was so thankful to enjoy another great New Zealand meal.
There is a beautiful garden to enjoy if you do have a long wait for a table. Booking ahead is advised. Glenfollach isn’t more than 15 minutes into the Peninsula, so accessible from downtown Dunedin.
My travel rule of thumb: visit a botanic garden, especially if it is free. When traveling on business a good garden makes an excellent place to get some steps in and breathe fresh air. Not all gardens are created equal. This summer I had the opportunity to go to the Missouri Botanic Garden and it is world class. And I started my NZ trip with a stay at the world class private garden, Paripuma. Alas, the Christchurch Botanic Gardens is looking frumpy. It was winter and they have had their hands full with rebuilding glasshouse structures after the earthquakes; nevertheless, even before “the big one” I felt the garden was more Ode to Mother England than a celebration of New Zealand. In the photos above you see lots of lawn, some legacy trees and a lot of (yawn) planted annual beds.
Even with that critique, there is hardly a prettier downtown than Christchurch ANYWHERE in the world. Well, maybe Adelaide, Australia. They have optimized the Avon River and the parks and gardens in a way that you must make time to walk through.
The garden that I’ll be sure to visit again is in Dunedin.
This garden is built on a steep hill (much like Wellington’s) and yet maximizes the attractions with different gardens and lots of plant variety and statuary. Plus I LOVE a knot garden! I just wish there was a viewing platform for the knot garden.
They welcome children in Dunedin and design for their enjoyment: a train, free food for ducks, playground equipment, and space to make your own fun. It was Father’s Day Sunday in New Zealand on the day of my visit and I saw loads of families taking advantage of the garden on an almost spring day.
It seems an almost silly thing, but I found this little stick structure and ended up sitting for a little while admiring it, wondering who built it and admiring their handywork.
The best gardens help you forget that you are in a city and take you into nature. Dunedin Botanic Garden does.
Both gardens are free to enter. Both have cafes where you can get a coffee or tea or something more substantial to eat. Both make their cities more livable and enjoyable.
After pedaling 150 kilometers along the retired Otago Central Railway, it was a treat to ride the rails by train. The Otago Central Railway was instrumental in developing Central Otago as an agricultural region. Today day-trippers and cyclists are the main “cargo”.
As we left Middlemarch I noticed a cute café called the Kissing Gate and Nick explained it was owned by Kate, a Dunedin councilwoman. We are more than 60 km from Dunedin and yet we are part of the greater city of Dunedin. Go figure.
My Off the Rails guide Nick turned off the main road at the sign to the Taieri Gorge Railway; we still had 12 km to go in the middle of nowhere. We arrived a few minutes before the train was due. Nick groaned slightly when he spied the little flea market along the side of the track. Their presence signified that there would be a tour train catering to a cruise ship that would delay our train.
Nick purchased my ticket for me and drove me to Pukerangi. Pukerangi means the Hills of the God in te reo Maori. The isolation does make a person wonder about the choice of the railway terminus (Middlemarch makes more sense). It was raining by the time we reached the station. The train was a little behind schedule and Nick was able to suss out the delay was due to an extra train carrying cruise ship tour groups.
When the train arrived, Nick had a word with the elderly guard Joe. He confirmed that we would experience a delay of about 40 minutes because there is only one track so we have to wait for them to arrive and their cruise ship disembarked an hour behind schedule. Meanwhile people desperate for retail shopping browsed among the market tables. The rain started coming down hard and the vendors covered their goods with tarps. The hardiest tourists continued to browse as best they could.
Our train arrived first and the train conductors greeted us warmly. They had my souvenir ticket and loaded my bags. I had time to stop at the dining car and purchase an egg salad sandwich and some potato chips before the train filled with travelers. There was a family with a baby who screeched. Not the usual boo-hoo from a baby or toddler but a screech like a parrot. Thankfully the rocking of the train seemed to calm him once we were underway.
Too bad it did not quiet the opinionated American woman with the southern accent who responded to a gentle joke from the conductor, “Barrack Hussein Obama is a secret Muslim.” It was apropos of nothing and really awkward. The Chinese-speaking rider across from me obviously understood and caught my eye as if to see if I would respond. I really did not know what to say. I did write in my journal, “Tests for letting people out of the country instead of in.”
The train is aptly named as we passed one gorge after another. The Scotch Broom blooms bright yellow on the hillsides among the tor (rock outcropping). Seats are assigned, so if you are keen to take pictures, request a left side window seat en route to Dunedin and opposite on way to Pukerangi, and if you are afraid of falling off the side of roads request an aisle seat.
Gradually the terrain levels out and transforms into bucolic farmland. Finally we reach the outskirts of Dunedin and see homes and businesses. About 1 hour and 45 minutes later, we arrive at the majestic Dunedin Central Train Station. The station is a gorgeous Victorian era monument to railroads and is centrally located in downtown Dunedin.
Dunedin Railways (www.taieri.co.nz) offers several daily trips from the majestic Dunedin Railway Station to Pukerangi (short drive from Middlemarch) or one train to/from Middlemarch on Sunday and Friday. The fare (as of January 2015) is $89 per adult. Tickets can be booked on line and I recommend you purchase in advance especially during summer season.
The mansion known as Larnach Castle and its extensive gardens are open to the public. There is an admission charge unless you are staying overnight in the lodging. It is about 20-30 minutes on a narrow, windy road from the Dunedin City Centre, South Island, New Zealand. It is worth the effort.
It was built by William Larnach,who was a bit of a scoundrel, in 1871. It took over 15 years to build, finish the interiors and furnish. Larnach was a merchant and politician who ended a bankrupt suicide. The house fell into dereliction for years and then in 1967 the Barker family bought and restored it. Margaret Barker searched high and low for the original furnishings or photos to return the home and its gardens to its former glory.
The home is impressive. I am always more interested in the gardens and they are lovely.