Dunedin (Nov 28, 2018)

Just as Akaroa is reminiscent of France, Dunedin, 145 nautical miles south, has a definite Scottish flair. For one thing there are lots of brick buildings. Scottish immigrants settled the area, but the discovery of gold really put it on the map. It is home to Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world, which we drove past but not up; the most iconic building in New Zealand, a very impressive train station; and the first university and the first botanical garden in the country. We were not told this is a one of a kind, but I had never seen sculptures of molars (as in teeth), six to be exact, situated at the water’s edge to signify the mouth (get it?) of the harbor. Anyone heard of hairy lemons? They were on sale: three for NZ$8.99.

We enjoyed the ride out of town. We traveled for quite a distance on a road that hugs the water’s edge. I mean it’s literally yards from the water. It seemed to me high tide would cover the road, but I guess they know what they are doing. At times the railroad and a walking path paralleled the road. Quaint boat houses lined the water’s edge. The city is built on seven hills, so the higher we went the more magnificent the views. It was so steep in places I wondered how the sheep grazed without toppling over. We passed well maintained rock walls and a self-serve roadside stand selling small bags of mulch and small bags of sheep manure. Just leave your cash in the box provided.

First stop: the world’s only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross. Along with the wandering albatross, they are the largest seabirds in the world, so we assumed it would be a no-brainer to spot them. Wrong! They nest in tall grass and hunker down to stay out of the wind. Bottom line: we saw the head and neck of one. The first of two redeeming features about the visit was our informative, French-accented guide who shared all sorts of details about these long-lived (40+ years) birds, their two-year breeding cycle, and the efforts of the Royal Albatross Center to support them. This year there are 52 eggs, a record.

The second redeeming feature of the visit was the fact that two other birds nest there. The curious red-billed gulls, with their bright red feet and black and white polka-dotted tail feathers, nested in plain sight anywhere and everywhere. In a couple places we had to be careful not to step on curious chicks. The species of shag (or cormorants) we saw are only found in coastal NZ and were more elusive because they nested on the edge of a drop off. We were offered the use of binoculars to see them up close.

These three species of bird just happen to nest right on top of and beside Fort Taiaroa, famous for its disappearing breech loading gun, part of a coastal defense system. So, what the heck, we had a look at that too. In 1889 the British chose a small rise overlooking Otago Harbour on top of which they built tunnels and a few small rooms. These man-made tunnels led to a round pit large enough to house a rotating cannon-looking gun that retracted below ground between shots. Once all construction and installation of the gun were completed the construction engineers cleverly mounded dirt over the whole thing transforming the rise into a small hill. Next they planted native grasses, and there you have it: a gun, hidden in a man-made hill, that is capable of firing a 100 pound shell up to 8,000 yards before disappearing into the ground after every shot. It has been restored to working order. Quite impressive. Sidebar: Tsarist Russia left NZ alone early in the 20th century and the Germans did the same during WWII, so the gun has never been used for national defense.

On the grounds as well were a half dozen or so rare, brown sheep. They are no longer in favor for wool production because they shed their coats a bit at a time by rubbing against things like trees and fences. It would obviously be a bit time consuming running around collecting the wool.

As we were boarding the bus to leave, two huge albatrosses did a fly over. With a nine-foot wingspan it made for an impressive farewell. Very cool.

Last stop of the day: Larnach Castle. Before our tour we were welcomed into a beautiful large room separate from the main house where we were served tea and scones. As you might expect, we took full advantage. With stomachs full, we headed next door to see the imposing stone house built by an Aussie of Scottish descent, William James Mudie Larnach, who was recruited to manage the bank which serviced the extensive goldfields in this area. He sailed for Dunedin in 1867 and never looked back.

No expense was spared in creating Larnach’s dream home and magnificent gardens which highlight the panoramic views of Dunedin, Otago Harbour, the peninsula, and the Pacific Ocean. Approximately 200 men spent three years building the stone shell and its wraparound porch and then gifted European craftsmen spent 12 years embellishing the interior. Materials from all over the world were used: Italian marble, Walsh slate, English floor tiles, Venetian and French glass, Belgian mosaic tiles, ebony from who knows where, and beautiful Australian and New Zealand native woods. In terms of furnishings, there were two surprises for us: a 2,000 pound marble bathtub and Buffalo Bill Cody’s desk. (Seems they met at the world’s fair in Paris.)

Hold on to your hat for this! Mr Larnach felt his success was in large part due to his ability to embrace new challenges and think outside the box. I’d say he did just that when he piped horse manure underground from the stable to a specially built chamber outside the music room. Above this chamber he built a privy for the use of the family and staff, so that human waste was added to this nose-pinching brew. The resulting methane gas, which was used to light the chandeliers, was captured in a glass bubble and then moved into the castle by a boy working a foot pump. Get Out!

The Larnachs nicknamed the place The Camp. Locals nicknamed it The Castle.

Tonight’s conversation cards: Which piece of land would you preserve forever? What is the secret to a good marriage?


Whaling was a vital economic activity from 1827 through 1964.
Whales migrated right off shore which made them pretty easy pickings.

Kiwis drive on the left side of the road.

New Zealand’s 550 mussel farms produce 75,000 tons of mussels annually.
The fleshy green lipped variety is especially prized. Cleone and Walter had some before we arrived and said they were wonderful.

There is an active program to rid the country of possums because of the damage they continue to do to forests and native wildlife.
In the meantime, the meat is exported; the skin can be used to make clothing; and possum wool is mixed with merino sheep wool to make knitting yarn. We saw lots of possum and merino knitwear for sale. Not cheap by the way; just ask Walter and Cleone.


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