|SOUTHLAND AND OTAGO PENINSULA - CATLINS TO DUNEDIN South Island
Since Corby had put a bug in our ears that the Catlins was well worth taking the time to visit, we decided to make a longer driving day and take a detour to the southernmost part of the island, then follow the coast to Dunedin.
Our drive meant that we would loop down from Gore in the central Southlands area instead of heading east to Dunedin.
The southern drive to the Catlins area was quite dramatic and the sheep were in abundance where it is so green and the soil so fertile that it is prime agriculture country. We bypassed Invercargill and landed on the coast at Fortrose, where the true wilderness forest carpet the landscape to the edge of the rocky headlands.
We took the scenic drive along the shoreline to Curio Bay. On the way we stopped to hike out to Slope Point, the southern most point of the South Island of New Zealand. The trail took us through a paddock filled with a huge flock of unconcerned sheep but the wind that swept unblocked from the Southern Ocean and Antarctica was enough to take your breath away. It must have been blowing at least 50 knots.
The wind was so forceful that I had to hang on to the signpost at Slope Point to stop from being blown off my feet!
We hurried back to the shelter of the car and continued on to Curio Bay, which features the extensive fossilized remains of a 160 million year old Jurassic-age forest which can be seen embedded in the rocks at low tide.
We were so intent on studying the prehistoric remains that we almost stepped on a Yellow Eyed Penguin dozing on a rock. I quickly froze and got my camera ready. I was being careful to sneak closer but soon realized the sleepy penguin was not at least affected by my presence. In fact as I advanced he remained motionless. I decided that he must be hurt or sick because he wasn’t moving at all.
Then suddenly a wave splashed against his rock and he bounced to his feet and waddled away. To my delight, I could see that he was fine. I later learned that he was likely molting, a time when penguins are very uncomfortable and oblivious to their surroundings. They are also not waterproof at this time, which is why he jumped out of reach of the wave
I felt so fortunate to be able to get so close to this little Yellow-eyed Penguin, which is an endangered species and probably the world’s rarest penguin; the experience was certainly the highlight of the trip!
We stopped along the way and had a sandwich while parked along the shore of a sandy beach. We reached Dunedin around 6 pm, enough time to check into our Holiday Park and then continue on our penguin sighting quest.
Sub Antarctic Wildlife
We headed out to the Otago Peninsula, which in itself was a glorious drive high on top of the bluffs overlooking the Otago Harbour and the ocean. We found our way to Sandfly Beach where, from the parking lot, we could hike across the sand dunes, then down the beach to a Penguin hide.
The Dunedin dunes were a remarkable sight but the climb down to the beach was very steep through deep sand.
On the walk down the beautiful sandy beach we came across some Hooker Sea Lions lazily sleeping in the sun after a hard day of fishing.
Sandfly Beach is home for a colony of Yellow-Eyed Penguins. However, because we were there at the time of the year that they are in their molt, not many Penguins had been coming ashore in the evening. At most times of the year the penguins spend their day at sea sourcing food and will travel up to 45 km offshore a day. They return at dusk engaging in subtle social rituals on the beach, before trekking inland to their individual nests. These penguins have excellent eye sight and hearing and are easily frightened so quietly waiting in the hide was our only option to see them come ashore. We patiently waited with a small crowd of other enthusiasts anticipating the arrival of the penguins. However a couple of hours passed and we only saw 2 altogether so we made the trek back to the car to continue our pursuit elsewhere.
It was about 8:30 PM when we arrived at Pilots Beach at the tip of the Otago Peninsula. This is home for the little Blue Penguins that come ashore even later at night. The viewing area is just below the Albatross Colony and there was already a group gathered hoping to get a glimpse of these unusual birds.
We joined the gathering and while we were silently waiting, magnificent Albatross flew overhead. I had the binoculars so got a “bird’s eye” view of the huge wingspan, which could easily have been 6 feet across. We planned to visit the Albatross Colony the following day before we left Dunedin. It is the only mainland albatross breeding colony in the world.
It was very dark before the first very shy and skittery Blue Penguin came reluctantly ashore. He knew to make a beeline for the trail that led to the protective cover that would house him for the night. We waited for another to appear for a while longer but decided that it was getting too cold and dark to persevere so we called it a night
The City of Dunedin (Gaelic for Edinburgh)
The next morning we explored Dunedin, full of beautiful gardens, stately homes and its magnificent buildings that encapsulate Victorian and Edwardian architecture, including the historic stone Municipal Chambers, the old red brick Police Station, bearing a strong resemblance to Scotland Yard, and the Railway Station.
The Police Station
at its finest
The grandiose Railway Station was built in Flemish Renaissance style of basalt with Oamaru limestone facings. It features copper domed towers, lions perched on the clock tower and elaborate stonework around the arched windows.
|Later we headed back out to the Otago Peninsula to take in the Albatross Colony. On the way we drove to the Larnach Castle but, on entering the grounds, we decided that the entry fee was too much and we did an abrupt U-turn out. The drive along the peninsula was breathtaking, as the road afforded beautiful views of the countryside overlooking the ocean. Sheep grazed in lush fields surrounded by stone fences, much like what you would expect to see in England. The road then dropped down to follow the harbour, where I stopped to take a picture of the black swans one of many species of birds found in the estuaries around Dunedin.
|We reached the crowded parking lot of the Albatross Colony only to find out that we would not be able to go to the observatory that day due to the limited number of people allowed each day. But we enjoyed the exhibits and had lunch in a restaurant high above the colony where the ocean below stretched blue to the horizon.
It was only a couple of hours drive to Oamaru where farms occupy a large part of Otago and contribute to New Zealand’s booming agriculture economy.
We stopped to view the legendary Moeraki Boulders. Unfortunately we arrived at high tide so did not get the view of the huge boulders as is pictured here. These large spherical boulders scattered along the beach at Moeraki are concretions formed over a period of 4 million years, around a central limestone crystal core, and have been washed out from the bluffs along the shore. Two of these boulders were found to contain dinosaur bones.
The coastal town of Oamaru is known as the White Stone City because it has the country's best preserved collection of historic commercial buildings with grand pillared Victorian edifices made of limestone. We stayed at the Empress Hotel Backpackers, which is one of these historic buildings.
The primary reason for our visit to Oamaru was to continue our “Penguin sighting” quest. We began the evening at Bushy Beach, where there is a hide a short walk from the carpark. Again we waited anxiously with a number of others hoping for a sighting of a Yellow Eyed Penguins. Finally we were rewarded with a sighting of 5, not the normal 100 or so that have been known to come ashore at other times of the year, but nonetheless we saw them in their natural habitat.
Blue Penguin Colony
Since we had discovered that to see Penguins involved quite a commitment and a lot of work hiding in the bushes at night, we threw in the towel and headed for the Blue Penguin Colony where you pay to sit in bleachers and watch the smallest penguins in the world come ashore to the natural environment built for their protection and preservation.
The Penguins have been known to venture across the roads after dark.
The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony does an excellent job to provide a safe predator free habitat and conservation area for the penguins. Since its beginning in 1993, the colony has had a very high breeding success with the colony population increasing from 33 to 120 breeding pairs and up to 200 birds arriving home each evening during peak penguin season. The blue penguin comes ashore after dark and lives underground in burrow. Luckily, they don’t mind coming ashore under special lighting making it possible for us to see them.
It turned out to be an enjoyable experience because we learned a lot from the commentary and the displays and exhibitions that were at the facility.
|We were captivated by over 50 little Blues that rode the waves ashore, made their way up the stony beach, stop to preen and socialize, and finally parade across the road to their cliff side nesting area.
Smallest penguins in the world
|Cormorants lined up on the dock by the hundreds at dusk while we were awaiting the arrival of the Penguins.