There’s a busy and elegant southern hemisphere city where half an hour out of town, the world’s biggest albatross chicks perch plumply on untidy nests, waiting for mum to come home; and where a couple of kilometres from the suburbs, the rarest penguins on earth toddle off down the sand every morning for another hard day in the office.
It’s Dunedin, New Zealand’s Edinburgh of the South, an intriguing blend of university-town counter-culture, dour Scottish architecture and wild natural surroundings.
On the South Island’s far south-east coast, Dunedin, a city of 120,000 people, clusters prettily around the inner end of a narrow harbour, sheltered by the Otago Peninsula, a 30-kilometre finger poking out into the ocean.
While entirely within the city’s borders, the peninsula is a land apart – dry-stone walls enclose green and rolling sheep fields, narrow roads link tiny seaside settlements, surf crashes on remote beaches and roadside signs announce the presence of a talented creative community of weavers and writers, potters and painters.
Take the high road, and you’re in Scotland – the graceful pile of stones that is Larnach Castle might adorn any misty hill above Loch Lomond or Loch Ness.
Take the low road, and you’re back on a breezy southern hemisphere coastline, where sea lions rumble with displeasure if you get too close and screaming seabirds wheel on the wind.
On the peninsula’s tip is Taiaroa Head, site of the world’s only mainland albatross colony. Lying inside municipal boundaries, there’s a well-trodden air about the place – a gravel track leads from the visitor centre to the viewing hide, and a buried chain-link fence protects the enormous yet helpless chicks from a motley collection of exotic feral pests, including dogs, cats, ferrets, stoats and weasels.
Every bird wears a distinguishing band and every nest has its own blowfly trap. Incredibly, there are even neatly mown runways to help with landings and take-offs.
Even more odd is the fact that directly beneath the nests are the underground tunnels, ammunition magazines and gun emplacements of an abandoned fort, built last century to protect the citizens of Dunedin from an invasion of the Russian Navy.
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With any number of remote offshore islands available to the albatrosses, it does seem a peculiar place to lay an egg. But when the parent birds glide in from the sea on slender three-metre wingspans, the majesty of their flight quickly overwhelms such petty observations.
The life-story of these royal albatrosses is anything but suburban – after doing nothing but sit on a nest and be fed for seven months, the young birds choose a windy day to test their unused wings and begin an amazing flight that can last from three to six years, following the 40th parallel around the world’s wildest oceans, never touching land, covering 500 kilometres a day, only leaving the air to rest and feed at sea.
In contrast, the yellow-eyed penguins of Dunedin’s Otago Peninsula are stay-at-homes. Every evening, they toddle up the beach to their nests. Every morning, they waddle back down to the sea. The temptation to ascribe human characteristics to them is irresistible, but amusement turns to awe when the penguins hit the water, and the funny hobble of a little old man suddenly becomes strong, purposeful underwater flight – glimpsed only for an instant, then they’re gone.
At The Penguin Place, resourceful farmer Howard McGrouther has constructed a network of camouflaged trenches through one of his seaside paddocks, giving visitors a nose-to-beak look at the birds, which show little interest in the whirr and click of cameras at close range.
When you’re done with nature, it’s not far back along the peninsula through quaint little towns like Portobello, site of ‘1908’ a fine restaurant that’s worth the short drive from the city, even if you don’t see a single gliding albatross or waddling penguin.
After dinner, you’re soon back home in the centre of Dunedin, the South Island’s city of kilts and cathedrals, Speights ales and sporrans, rugby and rhododendrons, hakas and haggis – and the only place in New Zealand with a bagpipe shop right in the middle of town.
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