Edinburgh down south

Dunedin and vicinity.

Dunedin: Edinburgh down under

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on December 13, 2010

Dunedin, named as a Gaelic translation of Edinburgh (Dun-Edin), is a small university city on the eastern coast of the Otago district of New Zealand's South Island. Despite having a population of only about 125,000, it's the second largest city on the South Island, and both historically and geographically, one of the important centres of population in the country.

The area was settled by the Maori in the 14th century, while the European settlement dates to the beginning of 19th century, when sealing and whaling were the main activity. The town of Dunedin was founded in 1848 as a special settlement of the Free Church of Scotland (a breakaway branch of the Scottish Kirk dating to 1843). The town was designed specifically to resemble Edinburgh down-under and the result is still both enchanting and grand. Dunedin's population exploded when gold was found in Central Otago soon after the city was established, and it became New Zealand's largest city and a location of the country's first university, daily newspaper, art school and more. Although long overtaken in size and importance by cities further north, Dunedin is still a major cultural and academic centre, and in the 1990's it has position itself as a heritage location and a tourism centre.

The modern city (if a place that small can be referred to thus) is a pleasant and interesting place to spend a few days, and if used as a base to explore the wider area, it can easily occupy at least two weeks' period.

Dunedin, as befits its name and origins, is rather Scottish in feel, though the architecture is in fact mostly 19th century Neo-classical, with very Italianate and even Flemish (the train station) touches. It is also very young & studenty, with over 20 thousand students in the total of 120 thousand population. There are many bars, cafes, off-beat shops and several take aways of every corner. The city centre, focusing on the plaza of the Octagon, is easily negotiable on foot and all town attractions can be walked to. The most notable include:

== Otago Museum (a great regional museum with good displays on the geology of the island, Maori artefacts and kids' attraction of the Discovery World);
== Otago Settlers Museum, with an emigration theme;
== Dunedin Public Art Gallery;
== Cadbury's world;
== the world's steepest street (Baldwin Street);
== Dunedin Railway Station (the terminus for Taieri Gorge Railway);
== Dunedin Chinese Garden;
== Botanical Gardens.

Within half an hour drive from Dunedin are unspoilt beaches and the rural and wildlife idyll of the Otago Peninsula.

Southern land, its wildlife and people

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on December 13, 2010

Otago Museum has an extensive collection of social history, ethnography and natural history artefacts. The museum is housed in a new building next to the University of Otago campus, about ten minutes' walk from the Dunedin city centre. The museum has a number of permanent exhibitions, to which the entrance is free of charge, as well as children's gallery called Discovery World and a Tropical World habitat, which incur an entrance charge.

The permanent galleries of the main museum include:
== Southern Land Southern People, a unique, cutting-edge gallery devoted to the geology, geography, wildlife and human inhabitants of the South Island. This gallery on its own could easily take up a couple of hours of visitors' time, with its informative, in-depth but accessible displays, hands-on interactive activities and dynamic layout. From the prehistoric fossils (including the remarkable plesiosaur) to Moa skeletons, from the Maori greenstone to gold nuggets, Maori hunters to European explorers and gold diggers, Southern Land Southern People is an excellent gallery and a true window onto the South Island, explaining and intriguing at the same time. If you only have an hour to spend at the Otago Museum, you should devote it to this gallery.
== Tangata Whenua - People of the Land is the gallery that displays Maori artefacts, in a space designed with rules of the Marae in mind, and with input from Ngai Tahu, the Maori tribe in Otago. This gallery is a great introduction to the material culture of the Maori and should not be missed.
== Pacific Cultures and People of the World exhibitions show extensive ethnographic collections of Otago Museum, and are fairly interesting (especially the Pacific Cultures gallery) but not as unique as previously mentioned displays.
== Maritime galleries present a hodge-podge of items relating to the sea connections of New Zealand, from an old diver's suit to whale skeleton and shipping posters. This exhibit is of a local curio type, and although worth a cursory look from any visitor, are not among the Museum highlights.
== Animal Attic, a Victorian-style gallery of wood-and-glass display cases showing specimens of animals in their full systematic arrangement (including invertebrate and vertebrate). This gallery is complemented by the Otago Nature gallery, which shows local wildlife.

The only section of the Otago Museum that costs money to enter is the Discovery World with the Tropical Forest. The Discovery World is an interactive science exhibition, in many ways similar to other spaces of this type in many of the world's cities, but still a fun and educational place, and particularly interesting for its interactive exhibits relating to different systems of the human body shown in Survival Factor. It's probably more suitable for older children, of eight and above if you care about educational value, but even the little ones will find many things to play with. The Tropical Forest is essentially a large greenhouse type space, filled with tropical vegetation and many live butterflies: if you have never been to a display like that before, you'll find it enchanting, otherwise it's a pretty standard attractions, but as the price is included in the Discovery World, you might as well have a look if visiting the science centre, otherwise it's not worth the extra charge just for the Tropical Forest.

In addition to permanent galleries, Otago Museum hosts temporary exhibitions from its collections as well as workshops, guided tours and a unique Search Centre where the collections can be explored at leisure: a cross between a library, lab, reading room and a classroom, it's a great space to learn more about Otago and New Zealand.

Open daily from 10am to 5pm and free to enter (apart from the Discovery World), Otago Museum is definitely worth a visit and comes highly recommended.
Otago Museum
419 Great King Street
Dunedin, South Island
+64 0 3 474 7474

Across the ocean waves

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on December 13, 2010

Otago Settlers' Museum is a local museum of social history, with galleries displaying exhibits relating to various groups of people that lived and live in Otago and through their personal stories, it tells the story of the whole area.

The museum is now undergoing refurbishment, but it still displays the most interesting and valuable objects from its collections in several galleries.

Across the Ocean Waves tells the story of immigrants travelling steerage, in an atmospherically recreated replica of the living quarters. The best feature of this exhibition are short video clips, in which actors dressed in period clothes recreate the tensions, conflicts, joys and dramas of the journey. This is a good exhibition that brings the realities of the immigrants' passage to life very well.

Kai Tahu and Windows on a Chinese Past are exhibitions housed in the same gallery and presenting the Maori and Chinese facets of the Otago history.

Hall of History is a mixture of artefacts and documents that would be of primary interest to locals searching for their roots, with displays focusing on the key events and people in the area's history.

Smith Gallery harks back to the roots of the Settlers' Museum itself, and despite its simplicity is mesmerising exhibition, with walls of a large room virtually covered in portraits of the early settlers, severe countenances of the Free Church elders, stern merchants, sober, solid Scottish men and women who came here over the ocean waves to work this land, and fish and whale this sea, and mould it into their vision of what the world should be like, and it's because of them that this distant island feels nowadays like a giant sheep pasture whose ancient spirit had been crushed long ago.

Josephine is the New Zealand's oldest surviving steam train, a Fairlie double-ended engine that arrived in Dunedin in 1872 and worked until 1917.

At the time of our visit, the entrance hall area of the Otago Settlers' Museum had an exhibition on the 1970's childhood, which was completely interactive and felt like a play-and-dress-up area rather than a museum display. The children engaged with old toys and clothes, while parents could loll about on square blue sofas!

The Museum is free to enter and open daily 10am to 5pm. It's not a must-see, but an interesting place and worth an hour or two if you are sending more than a day in Dunedin.
Otago Settlers Museum
31 Queens Garden
Dunedin, South Island
03 477 5052

Arcadia down under

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on December 13, 2010

The drive to Dunedin was rainy and cold, and we unpacked at the cabin in pouring rain, but the next day the sun is shining beautifully and the sky is bright blue, with little wispy clouds chased by a brisk but not too cold a wind. Our host, ride and companion is picking us up this morning and we are going to explore the Otago Peninsula, and who knows, maybe see some penguins.

Otago peninsula, a small finger of post-volcanic land hugging Dunedin and forming the Otago harbour, is only half an hour away drive from the town, but is a stunning gem of scenic landscape teeming with wildlife. Hills are covered in green pastures, the coast cut by many coves and inlets with both rocky cliffs and sandy beaches. The peninsula is known for breeding sites for Yellow Eyed and Little Blue penguins, Royal Albatros; fur seals and sea lions.

It's a scenic drive, and enhanced by the beauty of the sunny day; it's spring in New Zealand, and the hills are covered in fresh, green grass, the lambs are out en force and the landscape we see is an archetypal rural idyll, an Arcadia down-under: rolling hills gently sloping towards the waters of the Otago Harbour, small cottages gleaming white in the sun, the narrow road winding around the coast.

Our first stop (that is, a non-photo stop) is at the Portobello Marine Laboratory, also known as University of Otago aquarium, a serious marine research centre (the oldest in Oceania), which also has a small aquarium and education centre. The children enjoy looking at the tanks full of local water creatures, some of them possible to touch, and we all have a packed lunch at the terrace, in a warm sun.

After the aquarium we drive to Taiaroa Head, the end point of the peninsula and a home to the only breeding colony of Royal Albatross on a mainland (if New Zealand can be considered mainland). The visitors' centre is open and informative, but the actual viewing of the nesting colony is by an expensive tour: the birds' peace is protected and the entry is restricted, with the eligibility determined by willingness to pay – the tour costs 45 NZD (approximately 23 GBP) per person, and is a shining example of the way that Kiwis package-sell their natural assets via a tourist industry that is as full of hubris as it is of genuine interest and wonder. The adult albatrosses can be occasionally seen flying past the Taiaroa Head, the huge wingspan impressive, but still very much like giant seagulls which is what they really are.

On the cliffs, colonies of Spotted Shags, and below, in the blue-green water under the viewing decks, huge clumps of seaweed, tumbling and churning in the waves: a chaotic and yet mesmerising show.

From Taiaroa Head we take side-roads and dirt tracks that lead us on the ocean side of the Otago Peninsula, much wilder, less populated, where deep inlets cut into the land and high cliffs fall into the roaring waters.

Our last – and best – stop is Sandfly Bay (called that because of sand flying in the wind, not the dreaded insects), a beach where you can (if lucky, and mostly at dusk) see penguins for free (rather then on another expensive tour at a "private sanctuary" at Penguin Place). Even without penguins, the bay is breathtakingly beautiful, with a rocky headland enclosing it from the east and a large rock (called Lion's Head) just off the point of the headland.

The dunes are high and steep, almost sandy cliffs, and it's fun to clamber/run/slide down to the beach (it's much less fun to clamber up the steep slope a half an hour later, with sand pouring treacherously from under our feet). We don't manage to see any penguins, but the beach is strewn with large and solid looking, but at times surprisngly agile sea lions; most of them asleep or maybe just basking in the warmth of the low sun (some in the middle of the path), but some moving rather fast towards the water.

From the Sandfly Bay, it's time to go back, and as we drive towards Dunedin taking the high road through the middle of the peninsula, mist raising and the sun glowing eerily behind the sudden cloud. The Maori name for New Zealand (Aotearoa: the land of a long, white cloud) seems apter and apter every day.
Otago Peninsula

Dunedin, South Island

Dragon eggs in the foaming sea

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MagdaDH_AlexH on December 12, 2010

We set off to Dunedin from earthquake-shaken Christchurch around mid-day on a rainy September Thursday. Our kind host, a Danish student with a four year old daughter, decided to drive south to get away from the tremors, and she happens to have a six-seater, so we are good to go, and in a good company.

At first, the road passes through agricultural plain, a village after village, not quite grim, but certainly rather dull. We turn towards the sea in Timaru, where we stop for fish and chips: a standard – and still incredibly cheap – fare in those parts. We eat our fish and chips at a picnic table with a view of the sea: the sky is steel-grey and covered with fast moving, churning, billowing clouds; but the sea – so choppy it's almost boiling, fine spray blown across the deserted beach all the way towards us – the sea is still green with this opalescent, emerald, jade, sea green that the Southern Ocean seems to have here: Ireland might be the Emerald Isle, but no land I have seen before is as full of this mesmerising hue, from the Maori Green Stone to the pines, ferns and the Rata trees.

It's cold, though – the chips get solid by the time they reach the mouth, and the fingers get so cold we keep dropping bits of fish. We drink the rapidly cooling tea and get back in the car. The road takes us along the coast or very near it, then through the white and a bit eerie town of Oamaru, and then, as the dusk just starts to fall, to our only planned stop on this drive, the Moeraki Boulders.

Not quite in Otago, technically speaking, but significantly closer to Dunedin that to Christchurch, Moeraki Boulders lie on the Koekohe Beach between the villages of Moeraki and Hampten, about ten miles north of Palmerston.

We park in the public car park, and having wrapped ourselves well against the drizzle and the wind, descend to the beach, negotiate a stream (read: ford or jump over, carrying the smaller children) and then walk on a sodden beach along a sandy cliff. The ocean (I can't think of it as "the sea" any more, it's as an oceany ocean as I have ever seen, felt and tasted on my breath) is pounding the shore, the thick, dirty-white foam shoved onto the sand and then torn into pieces by the next wave.

And then we see them, clusters of shapes resolving into round boulders: like circular dragon eggs in the foaming sea. I can't quite figure out what the attraction is here, but the attraction is undoubted. They are unusual, although not unique (there are other ones like that in New Zealand) in being almost ideally spherical, and in coming in two distinct sizes – the larger ones being between 1.5 to 2 meters in diameter, the smaller ones half to one metre. The boulders originate in the mudstone cliffs that line the beach (they were created from that mudstone over several million years of sedimentary processes), and in fact you can see some still in the cliffs, not yet having emerged onto the beach. They are formed of mud, silt, clay and calcite, a honey-comb centre enclosed in a hard shell (you can peek inside the ones that split up or shattered).

A Maori myth sees the boulders as food baskets washed up onto the coast from a large canoe that was wrecked nearby (remains of the boat itself are commemorated in landscape features). The area of the beach with the boulders is now protected nature reserve, and they have become a bit of an iconic sight, replacing the Milford Sound's Mitre Peak in more cutting-edge tourist publications worried about the cool factor.

We run around them, climb on (the two little ones stand bravely on a large boulder that gets completely engulfed by the waves as the parents take photos), touch, peer, photograph and just stand there admiring the scene: there is something incongruous about those round rocks, sitting here half-buried in the sand. One is tempted to wonder what the point is and who placed them there – and although we know there was no design or purpose to the Moeraki Boulders, they remain in memory, strangely indicative of wilderness and mystery.
Moeraki Boulders
Moeraki Boulders Road, Koekohe Beach
Otago, New Zealand


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