The Secret Diary of Adrian Petford Aged 39¾

Dunedin – Scotland, New Zealand style

Posted in Dunedin,New Zealand 2009 by Adrian Petford on August 17th, 2009

The second stage of my trip was all new – the city of Dunedin in the South Island. Founded by Scottish settlers, it’s proud of its heritage which is evident everywhere even today. The city’s original proposed name, “New Edinburgh” was thought would cause too much confusion with Edinburgh in Scotland so they adopted “Dunedin” – Edinburgh’s Gaelic name – instead. Being a great fan of Edinburgh myself made Dunedin an absolute must for this trip.

Dunedin’s in the south of the South Island, so if time is short the only realistic option is to fly down. I’d booked a two-stage internal flight via Christchurch. I was very impressed by the automated check in system at Auckland airport’s domestic terminal. Using touch screens and barcode scanners, you can get your boarding passes and labels for your luggage in seconds. There was someone on hand to help as I hadn’t used it before but it was all very straightforward. All I needed was my printed e-ticket and to put my bag on the conveyor at bag drop, it was brilliant.

Both flights were on Boeing 737-300s and were comfortable, with good service and ran on time. I liked the typically Kiwi Air New Zealand safety video which was gently humourous. Some good views of Auckland airport on the way out, and I was able to get some amazing photographs of the Southern Alps (all snow capped now, of course) and the Canterbury plains while approaching Christchurch. The changeover between planes was mere minutes and then it was on to Dunedin. I’m certainly glad I did my usual thing of going for window seats on short flights, even if the best views were on the other side of the aircraft from where I was both times!

The flight south. The Southern Alps from the air – 10-Aug-2009
The flight south. The Southern Alps from the air – 10-Aug-2009
The flight south. The Southern Alps from the air – 10-Aug-2009
The flight south. The Southern Alps from the air – 10-Aug-2009
The flight south. The Southern Alps from the air – 10-Aug-2009
The flight south. The Southern Alps from the air – 10-Aug-2009
The flight south. The Canterbury plains from the air – 10-Aug-2009
The flight south. The Canterbury plains from the air – 10-Aug-2009

I immediately noticed it was colder in Dunedin; although not excessive (I just had to put a jumper on) it was noticeable. The weather was slightly overcast but no rain. There was low mist hanging over the mountains which was an impressive sight. Once out of the airport it was straight onto a crammed shuttle bus; there wasn’t time to even take a picture of the famous “Southern Man” statue!

Dunedin airport is 30km from the city so I then got an improntu free tour of the area and suburbs as people were dropped off. This was really interesting. There were some really, really steep roads so I’m glad I’m not tackling Dunedin on foot! After about fifty minutes I was dropped at my motel and went to check in. I’d picked a really well placed motel, the 97 Motel Moray which is the closest motel to the centre of town and it was a very nice, comfortable unit.

Dunedin Railway Station was opened in 1906 and is reckoned to be New Zealand's most photographed building – 11-Aug-2009
Dunedin Railway Station was opened in 1906 and is reckoned to be New Zealand’s most photographed building – 11-Aug-2009

On Tuesday I picked up my hire car, a white Nissan Bluebird. As it was still early I walked around Moray Place admiring First Church and some of the other old Victorian and Edwardian buildings. Carrying on, I soon reached Dunedin Railway Station, which claims to be the most photographed building in New Zealand. I can see why, it’s Edwardian and absolutely gorgeous, both inside and out. I was intending to go on the Taieri Gorge Railway so I booked in for the trip at 12.30pm and busied myself looking around the station and taking photos of nearby buildings. The Law Courts are impressive and there’s a huge Cadburys factory across the road.

The Taieri Gorge Railway is very well set up. They use restored 1920s carriages which really added something to the experience. My seat was right at the back of the train on its own! The train was far from full, I expect it’s usually like this in winter. Then it was off, first out through the suburbs and Taieri plain and then into the gorge itself. It’s billed as one of the world’s great train journeys and I’d certainly agree with that. As a journey through stunning scenery and a tribute to an amazing feat of engineering it wins on both counts. The commentary throughout the outward trip was very informative. As I was getting lunch from the buffet car in the early part of the journey I missed some of the sights including the Wingatui Viaduct (reckoned to be the largest wrought iron structure in the southern hemisphere) but I got them on the way back! I also liked the railway house at the former crossing station at Parera, a sole dwelling in the middle of nowhere, now restored and used as a holiday home, but still with no electricity, TV or running water!

A stop for a spectacular photo opportunity, Taieri Gorge Railway – 11-Aug-2009
A stop for a spectacular photo opportunity, Taieri Gorge Railway – 11-Aug-2009

The run took around two hours to reach the end of the line at Pukerangi through mountains, tunnels, across viaducts and gullys. It was amazing. There were a couple of stops on the way to point out interesting things. Being right at the back of the train I got a fantastic view; standing on the platform at the back hanging on to the rails while trying to take photos was certainly an experience but it was well worth it.

After the briefest of stops at the end of the line – ten minutes – it was off again. I just enjoyed the scenery on the way back, taking only the occasional photo and making sure I captured the sights I missed on the way out. I got some good photos in the end although others were blurred due to the buffeting train and me hanging on to the rails for dear life rather than keeping the camera steady!

Robert Burns statue, The Octagon – 11-Aug-2009
Robert Burns statue, The Octagon – 11-Aug-2009

Once back in Dunedin – by this time the sun had come out and there was some blue sky, it had previously been an overcast day – I had a look around the Octagon which is packed full of interesting sights. The i-SITE is in an amazing building and St Paul’s Anglican cathedral is right next door, plus there’s a statue of Robert Burns right in the centre of town. There’s an old Regent cinema and the Art Gallery is also in an unusual old building. Most of these places are now cafes, bars and restaurants. That evening, I ate at Etrusco at the Savoy, an Italian restaurant just down from my motel that Steve and Cherie had recommended which was lovely, very open with pillars, large windows and a bar in the centre. The meal was terrific, probably the best pizza I’ve ever eaten and I finished off with the exquisite sounding (and tasting) Hot Fudge Sundae.

One word summed up Wednesday: RAIN! I woke about 7.30am to hear it pattering on the roof. Hoping it wouldn’t be much, I looked outside but it was clearly a LOT of rain. Not torrential, but enough to cause problems and affect the day. I spent most of the day at Otago Museum which was still on my list of major things to do in Dunedin, so thankfully the time was far from wasted. The Maori and Southern People exhibition halls were exceptionally good and told me a lot about Dunedin and the Otago area. There was so much to see at the museum it easily filled the day, in fact I still only had time for a brief walk around the Peoples of the World, Pacific Cultures and Maritime halls.

On Thursday, I was delighted to see clear blue sky and a glorious day again. I had planned to visit Larnach Castle and the Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head come what may, but was very relieved the weather had come out in sympathy with my need to do outdoorsy things today! Larnach Castle (billed as “New Zealand’s only castle”) is on the highest point of the Otago Peninsula and driving up the winding road, the views were simply stunning: the harbour and Dunedin on one side, the Pacific Ocean on the other.

Larnach Castle, New Zealand's only castle – 13-Aug-2009
Larnach Castle, New Zealand’s only castle – 13-Aug-2009

Although “castle” is laying it on a bit in the case of Larnach Castle, it’s still a very, very impressive building – more a stately home with battlements and a tower on top. It reminded me a bit of Portmeirion in Wales in as much as it’s the product of a single person’s unique and quirky imagination. Once I’d finished looking around the unusual gardens I had a rest stop at the cafe-restaurant in the castle’s ballroom wing. This was stunning, all wooden panelling, chandeliers, open fires and leather seating. Then I walked around and ascended the long stone staircase leading up to the front entrance, rang the doorbell and was admitted by the receptionist – how quaint.

Sadly, you can’t take photos inside the castle but the tour was superbly put together. The guide leaflet had a map and all the things of interest to look out for in each room. There was an introductory video and exhibition room outlining the story of the castle and its creator William Larnach, who was a very powerful, influential – and mercurial – figure in Dunedin and Otago in the nineteenth century.

I really enjoyed walking around and the highlight was ascending a very tight stone spiral staircase to get to the tower on top. The views were breathtaking on all sides. You could see right from Dunedin out to Taiaroa Head on the one side and the endlessness of the Pacific Ocean on the other. What a brilliant attraction Larnach Castle is, definitely one of the highlights of this trip so far.

Otago Harbour – 13-Aug-2009
Otago Harbour – 13-Aug-2009
On the way to Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula – 13-Aug-2009
On the way to Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula – 13-Aug-2009

The drive out to Taiaroa Head, right along the coast of Otago Peninsula to the tip, was breathtaking. It was worth doing it for that alone, but seeing the Head with its views was a worthy end to the journey. Sadly I couldn’t do a combined tour of Fort Taiaroa and the albatross colony as they had finished those for the day so I opted for the fort on its own. This was fascinating and the guide did a very good tour.  The fort was defensive, built in the late nineteenth century when New Zealand feared a Russian invasion and expanded in both world wars. I went down into the underground tunnels, saw the gun in its chamber, saw parts of it demonstrated, the lookout point (also glimpsed an albatross so got something extra there) and a small museum. Better than Stony Batter on Waiheke Island I think, and I loved that. Fewer tunnels and a simpler installation but unlike that one, the gun is still here and is fully working after one and a quarter centuries. I enjoyed the drive along the coast on the way back just as much, even though the light was starting to go. It’ll be something I always remember when I think of Dunedin.

On Friday it was sadly time to leave Dunedin but I still had time to fit in one final sight on my way out – Baldwin Street, the world’s steepest street (authenticated by the Guinness Book of World Records, no less). I parked up on the other side of the road and walked up as far as I could, basically to where it started to get REALLY steep. There’s no way I’d have got any further but Baldwin Street was a lot more impressive to see than it sounds. Once I’d finished there it was off up State Highway 1 to my next destination, Oamaru.