Our first stop on the 226 mile drive from Christchurch to Dunedin is Oamaru. An historic seaport town nestled on the South Island’s east coast. While Oamaru’s early wealth was founded on gold, it was agriculture that provided the driving force for a thriving commercial port and harbor area. Although commercial usage has steadily declined over time, the original structures remain intact and the area is undergoing a revival. The Woolstore Cafe is in a restored building and there we enjoyed the day’s special – lamb burgers with fries. Once again I was delighted to find gluten-free “slices” – wonderfully moist, cake-like treats: chocolate hazelnut and a pear honey (my waistline is not in decline!).
During our stay in Christchurch we were advised to stop and see the Moeraki Boulders on our trip south. The boulders are situated some 40km south of Oamaru at Moeraki on State Highway One. It is a five minute walk along the beach to the boulders. From a distance they are not impressive in size, but up close the details become apparent. A little research revealed there incredible history… the boulders were embedded in the soft mudstone cliff at the beach and the forces of the sea have eroded the cliff away, exposing the round formation of the boulders. The boulders were formed by the crystallization of calcium and carbonates around charged particles, as one website described it – “a process similar to the way pearls are formed”. Although this process took four million years.
Originally we had planned to end our journey in Christchurch, but our friends, Sally & Bruce, encouraged us to continue south to Dunedin and the Otago peninsula. Dunedin is home to the University of Otago, New Zealand’s first university and the Otago Polytechnic. The University accounts for about 20 percent of the city’s population and this weekend was the start of the semester so lodging was booked downtown. Online we found a room at the newly opened St. Clair Beach Resort and after driving through the city found ourselves at the oceanfront where surfers were rallying and practicing for the next day’s Asia Pacific Long Board Championship. An excited Jay was soon talking to his buddy, Mark (surfer dude), via Skype – holding up the MacBook (see Jay’s review of the Ultimate Travel Computer) so Mark could see the surfers. Enjoying the sound of the surf and tired from a long day of driving, that night we dined nearby at Salt – a great little restaurant about two blocks from the hotel.
Waking the next morning to the sounds of loud speakers announcing the surfers we check it out for awhile from our balcony, then jump in the car and head out to the Otago Peninsula. Our destination is the Royal Albatross Colony at Taiaroa Head, on the tip of the Otago Peninsula. We drive out on Portobello Road along the edge of the harbor, then return on Highcliff Road along the top of the Peninsula enjoying the spectacular views of both routes.
Taiaroa Head is unique for the diversity of wildlife which abounds on this small headland. The albatross is one of eleven bird species which breed in the area and this is the only mainland breeding colony for any albatross species found in the southern hemisphere. The first Taiaroa-reared albatross chick flew in 1938 and this now protected nature reserve has grown into an established colony with a population of around 140 birds.
The breeding birds arrive at Taiaroa Head in September. The nest, built during early November, is formed by a bird sitting down and pulling vegetation and earth around itself with its bill. The white egg, weighing up to 500 grams, is laid during the first three weeks of November. The parents share incubation duty in spells of two to eight days over a period of 11 weeks – one of the longest incubation periods of any bird. The incubating bird sleeps much of the time its mate is away
When the chick has hatched, the parents take turns at guarding it for the first 30 to 40 days, and the feeding of the chick is also shared by both parents. Nearly 12 months after their arrival at Taiaroa Head, having cared for egg and chick over a period of some 300 days, the parents will leave the colony to spend a year at sea before returning to breed again. The chicks hatch during late January and early February; it takes about three to six days to finally emerge from the egg after making a hole in the shell. Albatross Breading Cycle For the first 20 days the chick is fed on demand, then meals decrease to three or four times a week. At 100 days the chick’s down reaches a maximum length of 12 centimetres. At this age the chick is fed larger meals, up to two kilograms at a time, of more solid substance. From early August the chick is fed lighter meals and in September, when fully fledged, it wanders from the nest testing its outstretched wings and eventually takes off with the aid of a strong wind. The young albatross will spend the next three to six years at sea; many then return to this unique headland to start another generation of Royals of Taiaroa.
While away at sea the albatross swallows plastic debris – in the North Pacific debris is concentrated in two huge eddies – in these areas the surface water contains six times more plastic than plankton by weight. Adult albatrosses breeding on Hawaiian atolls ingest the plastic, probably mistaking it for food, and then feed it to their chicks. As a result, thousands of chicks die yearly in Hawaii because their stomachs fill with plastic leaving no room for real food.
From the nature reserve viewing area we saw the rare Stewart Island Shag mud nests.
The lighthouse is a short walk from the reserve with views of the ocean and seals camouflaged among the dark stones.
Driving back on the Highcliff Road we came upon these wool laden sheep enjoying the shade; below is a view of the lush Otago Peninsula.
After a full day out on the Otago Peninsula we make reservations to dine in downtown Dunedin at Bacchus. Set in the heart of Dunedin in one of Dunedin’s historic buildings, Bacchus overlooks the Octagon (city center of Dunedin), and is known for it’s quality lamb and beef dishes and a first rate wine selection. We enjoyed a first class meal and good wine recommendations.
The following morning we check out at 10am (the standard time in NZ), return our rental car, check our luggage at train station and head to Plato for brunch. Plato is a relaxed eatery located on the harborfront of Dunedin and was recommended by our waitress at Bacchus last night. Hands down one of the best brunch dishes ever – Basque Eggs – free-range eggs broken over pan-fried potatoes, mushrooms, chorizo, tomatoes, feta and spinach, grilled with grated parmesan.
Walking into town we make a visit to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. As we made our way through the galleries the exhibit that stood out was Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. Described as “A collection of photographs that document the inaccessible places that exit below the surface of American identity.” The two images that stood out for me and contrasted each other were both in Washington State – a nuclear waste shot and the Olympic National Temperate Rainforest. The museum is worth checking out and this exhibit is there until May 9, 2010.
We eventually make it back to the Octogon to check out the South Island Bagpipe competition… here are Jay’s photos…
Our train leaves mid-afternoon… we are taking The Taieri Gorge Limited train, Dunedin’s prestige tourist train operating from the historic Railway Station. This scenic train & bus tour will eventually land us in Queenstown, NZ. This historic train travels through the rugged and spectacular Taieri River Gorge, across wrought iron viaducts and through tunnels carved by hand more than 100 years ago.
At one of our stops along the way, a grandma sets her bears out and photographs them. She tells Jay she will email the pictures to her grandchildren later as a fun way for them to follow her travels.