Overnight we’ve sailed past Christchurch and into the Southern Ocean to make our only port of call on New Zealand’s South Island. Coming into Dunedin in the early hours of daybreak was breathtakingly gorgeous. Taiaroa Head at the mouth of the Otago Harbor is home to a lighthouse built in 1864, and a colony of Northern Royal Albatrosses which established itself in 1919, apparently still the only colony in the world on an inhabited mainland. In a recurring theme for New Zealand, this spectacularly well-protected harbor was formed by volcanic erruptions.
Gun emplacements at the harbor entrance were built in 1886 by New Zealand’s 13th Heavy (Coast) Regiment in response to fears that New Zealand might be invaded by Russians. Tensions were high at the time between Russia and Britain over control of Central Asia.
A beautiful splash of color along the route into Port Chalmers.
I think if you emigrated to Dunedin from Scotland your first view of these gamboling heaths and spectacular bluffs as you come into the harbor might make you feel reassuringly at home. I imagine it will look like this when I get to Scotland some day.
Port Chalmers is the final provisioning station for Antarctic exploration. This was the last city seen by Sir Robert Scott before his fateful trek in 1910. Ernest Shackleton set out from here in the Endurance in an unsuccessful attempt to cross Antarctica from coast-to-coast, and in 1928 Admiral Byrd sailed from here to become the first man to fly to the South Pole.
Most of the Voyager passengers will disembark in Dunedin for the day and be back on board to weigh anchor for the Fjordlands and Milford Sound this evening. But a very fortunate few of us will leave the ship behind for two days and strike out across the South Island to make for Milford Sound by land. We’ll travel through several dramatically different topographical regions and through the dazzling countryside that Peter Jackson chose as the setting for filming of his Lord of the Rings trilogy.
When I booked this cruise and considered my options for shore excursions I expected that by this point in the fourteen day journey I would be climbing the walls, so a couple of days on firm ground seemed like a good idea. Well, I did climb the walls of the ship – the climbing wall on the sports deck, that is – and I was having a marvelous time on board. I also knew by now that by taking this excursion I would miss the on-board wedding that our Schooner Gang had invited ourselves to. The nuptials would take place the next morning in one of the fjords, while our little land expedition was in Queenstown. I genuinely regretted leaving the ship and my band of buddies behind….but our little expeditionary group was in for a Most Excellent Adventure.
Our route westward took us along the Otago Penninsula and through the lovely town of Dunedin. This is a college town, home to the University of Otago, New Zealand’s first university and the Otago Polytechnic.
Plans for the city of Dunedin were drawn up in England, where designers who had never even seen the place pictured a ‘classic English town’. Their stunning disregard for the topography of the region resulted in Dunedin having a number of streets that climb up remarkably steep hills, including Baldwin Street – featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as the steepest street in the world. Not only is Dunedin a spectacular piece of real estate but the city hosts a very fine website that includes a blog roll for journalists, and public domain photos. These two aerial photos of the town and the towering cliffs of the peninsula are courtesy of their site.
These heart-stopping cliffs are just a hop, skip and a jump from Dunedin. One of them is known as Lover’s Leap. Apologies for the irresistible play on words.
In the boom years of the Central Otago gold rush Dunedin’s ornate, Edwardian-baroque railway station with it’s beautiful formal gardens handled as many as a hundred trains a day. Today the over-the-top building and grounds is the scene of a weekly farmers market and the departure point for daily sightseeing trains.
George Troup, the designer of the station became know as ‘Gingerbread George’ for his penchant for extraneous flourishes. No kidding.
These tiles were designed and made for the station by Royal Doulton, the British company best known for their porcelain figurines and fine china.
I am always drawn to railway platforms. I could sit here for hours on end thinking about exotic destinations and fantasizing about the people who might have passed through. I can envision Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Agatha Christie’s Hercule Piorot standing on this platform, and I think Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin might have started his journey back to Russia from just such a place. Railway stations always feel like the beginnings of adventure to me. If I ever do write The Great Canadian Novel I think it will have to start at a railway station like this one.
We are on the road to spectacular Queenstown, a place that in movie director Peter Jackson’s mind looks very much like J. R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth. Our route will take us south-west through Alexandra and Clyde.
New Zealand spends some $50M a year trying to control the scotch broom that is devouring the country. I think the bright yellow hills are absolutely gorgeous but the highly invasive shrub takes over farm and pasturelands, grasslands, forests and rivers smothering native vegetation. The battle rages here about how to control the spread of scotch broom without incurring other unintended consequences – by introducing other species or with herbicides?
About an hour out of Dunedin we made a bathroom stop in tiny place whose name I can’t even remember (Roxburgh?) and whose most prominent feature was…well…the bathrooms. Forgive me as I wax on about this unexpected find but a well-designed bathroom is always cause for celebration to me – perhaps because they are so surprisingly rare. These spectacularly high-tech modular Exeloo toilets have been prudently dropped here to support the many tour companies who ply their trade through the area, and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a public washroom.
Having successfully navigated the user-friendly instructions to secure a spot, the door closed and I was welcomed with soothing music while, in that neutral tone I equate with car GPS systems I was informed that I’d have ten minutes to complete my transaction. Really??? What happens after ten minutes, we all wondered? Does the door fly open in an accusing fashion to disclose your dawdling to everyone anxiously awaiting their turn? Or perhaps we’d be ejected through the ceiling into a strategically placed container designed for just such inconsiderate loungers. None of us was prepared to test the consequences, although I probably came closest by dallying just long enough to snap these photos.
Nothing is left to chance. It’s all perfectly choreographed to ensure you complete all necessary functions within your allotted time. I’m thinking about installing one of these handy-dandy hand soaper-washer-dryer’s in my bathroom. I’m also curious to know if Exeloo has a franchisee in Canada. I know lots of soccer pitches that could seriously use a bank of these babies.
Deer farming originated in New Zealand, and the country continues to be the largest producer of farm-raised venison with an estimated stock of 1.7 million animals. Fences are designed to be just high enough that the deer can’t clear them. These animals aren’t native to New Zealand, which due to it’s remoteness has remarkably little wildlife compared to Australia (and many fewer species of anything that can kill you). They were brought here from England and Scotland for sport. Most of the venison from these deer farms is shipped to Germany.
In only a couple of hours the rolling green hills give way to low, craggy mountains covered in tundra-like brown scrub. Just a few days earlier these mountains were ablaze in the brilliant pinks of wild thyme. We follow the Kawarau River. This river drains beautiful Lake Wakatipu that we would pass by on our trip and it was where gold was mined in the 1800’s. It’s amazing to spot a few surviving remnants of the tiny huts used by miners more than a hundred years ago, sagging down between boulders or listing into the riverbank. This river was used as the setting for Argonath in the first of The Lord of the Ring movies – The Fellowship of the Ring.
Gibbston Valley Winery is the southernmost winery in the world. It was established in the 1980’s in the Otago Valley by entrepreneur, Alan Brady who started it as a hobby. When their very first vintage turned out to be better than expected they converted the hobby into a successful, and still privately owned commercial venture.
The Gibbston wine cave is a perfect place to mature wines and it was a very pleasant spot to try out a few, too.
Cool-climate pinots are big here. We tasted a Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir, then finished with the cleverly named Pinot Blanc and Noir – a cute term for their sparkling rosé, which was yummy.
One of these casks had a spout attached – only for effect but also as a great photo op.
Some of Gibbston’s oldest vintages.
Believe it or not this is the exact spot where bungy jumping was invented when, in 1988 AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch first had the notion to tie themselves up and jump off the Kawarau Bridge.
There’s a large tourist center and souvenir shop at one end of the now-famous bridge as folks come from all over the world to leap.
At one time the company offered free jumps to anyone who was willing to do it naked. But with Dunedin’s university and colleges only a few hours drive away it turned out to be a money-losing proposition.
Once you make the decision to leap you have a couple of options – to get wet or not to get wet, and to step up and launch yourself at your own leisure or to be shoved off the platform by an attendant. I suspect the ‘shove’ option is not always optional, as we watched this young lady take a very long time trying to take the plunge on her own before finally getting the nudge.
I seriously thought about doing this. Seriously. I mean, if you have the slightest inkling to bind up your feet and throw yourself off a bridge into cold, fast-flowing water then this is the place to do it. I chatted briefly with the young guy dangling at the end of the cord in the first photo and his description of the experience didn’t really sound all that terrifying. And it occurred to me that if I did it, I could have a fantastic conversation with my grandchildren. But alas, we have an incredible evening awaiting in Queenstown. Don’t miss In the Land of the Ring – Part Two coming soon to a blog site near you!