New Zealand Penguins and Steampunk
Our New Zealand journey continues to Dunedin and Oamaru
After we finished our bike tour in Middlemarch, our SheBikesHeBikes guide dropped us off to take the train to Dunedin. It was quite a trek from the town center up into the hills to the train platform. The day we traveled, there were just a few other independent tourists like us plus a full tour bus of visitors from Taiwan.
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Taieri Gorge Railway
The Taieri Gorge Railway is the last surviving section of Otago Central Railway line and has been running exclusively as a tourist line since the late 1980s. It runs about 77 kilometers along the banks of the Taieri River, passing through ten tunnels and crossing a dozen viaducts. After riding our bikes for a week it was nice to sit in the old-fashioned wooden railcar and see the spectacular views.
Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the service is in hibernation until further notice.
We arrived a few hours later in Dunedin’s spectacular train station, dating back to 1906. We wandered around the station in wonder checking out the mosaic tiles, clock tower and garden before we grabbed a taxi to our hotel, the Bluestone on George.
After a week on the dusty trail we were looking forward to chilling out and getting some laundry done. The Bluestone was the perfect spot. We had a huge room with all brand new fixtures and a jacuzzi tub, and a washer and dryer in the room. The hostess who checked us in brought us a big drying rack and we were able to get everything washed and hung up before dinner. We were close to tons of different restaurants right on George street and had our pick of all kinds of cuisines.
Dunedin is a fairly large coastal town on the East Coast of New Zealand, the second largest on the South Island, with about 130,000 people. It’s a university town with a pretty large selection of restaurants and shops. It’s two main drags – George Street and Princes Street, meet in a town square called the Octagon. The town is full of students in and out of the local bars and restaurants and hanging around in the Octagon.
Back in Oturehua, our dinner hosts had recommended Etrusco at the Savoy, an Italian restaurant in Dunedin – they were close friends with the owners (they also knew the Bluestone owners as well – small country). We walked downtown and persisted until we were able to locate the restaurant around a corner and upstairs.
We had a huge Italian meal with New Zealand wine and happened to mention to our waitress that Grahame and Liz sent us to visit. Then the young owner, Rion who had recently taken over the business from his parents, came over to chat with us. A few hours later the place was nearly empty and he was still talking to us. We learned all about his family, his background and what he liked to do for fun. We were sorry to leave!
The Hoiho (Yellow-eyed Penguin)
Not surprisingly, Dunedin has its share of local penguins. Both the Little Blue Penguins and the Yellow-eyed Penguin live nearby on the coast, and occasionally some of them wander into town and interact with the locals. Penguins also grace Dunedin as logos for public services or advertising for local restaurants.
While we were traveling, I posted a lot of penguin pictures from Phillip Island on a penguin Facebook page and was invited to come visit the Penguin Place, a Yellow-Eyed penguin reserve outside of Dunedin by one of my fellow penguin lovers. We drove about an hour outside of the town, along a gorgeous stretch of road right on the Otago Peninsula until we found the reserve, around the corner from a large albatross reserve.
The Yellow-eyed Penguin (or Hoiho, in Maori), is one of three different penguin species on the New Zealand mainland and is on their currency. Unfortunately, the Hoiho are also terribly endangered, as humans encroach more and more into their habitat and since they are shy and fearful, they get pushed out. Penguin Place was started by a couple of amaetur penguin lovers to try to preserve the few Hoiho left, by creating a safe place for them to nest and a non-intrusive way for humans to appreciate them. It’s the world’s first entirely tourism-funded conservation program.
Our trip to the reserve began with a tour of their small animal hospital, where they care for injured penguins and occasionally other local wildlife. There we got as close as we were ever going to get to native New Zealand penguins, including a Fiordland-crested penguin like we saw in Doubtful sound. Needless to say we took lots of pictures.
After the hospital, our guide took us on a walk around the rest of the reserve, with its beautiful, sweeping ocean views. We saw plenty of seals and other birds on our walk, then we moved on to view the penguins.
Because the Hoiho are so shy, the reserve built a series of underground tunnels with viewing windows so visitors can see the penguins without scaring them off. The tunnels are impressive, we felt as if we were in a World War I style bunker or another old fortification to protect a village from invaders.
We followed the tunnels down towards the beach and settled in a small room where we expected we might see some penguins. Our guides had warned us that there was a good chance we wouldn’t see any – a lot depends on the time of day and what the penguins are up to – depending on the season usually at least one of a breeding pair goes out fishing and eventually has to return to its nest. Our small group of about eight penguin lovers was tense and we kept looking through our tiny window for a sighting. Finally, we saw one lone Hoiho, standing alone on the beach, cleaning its feathers after a long day of swimming. He was too far away to really see well without binoculars or a telephoto lens, but we still felt victorious.
On the way to Penguin Place we stopped at Larnach Castle and Gardens, a more popular tourist destination in Dunedin. The castle was built by William Larnach in 1871, one of the wealthy Scottish families who settled this part of New Zealand. After a number of family tragedies, the castle fell into disrepair until it was acquired by the Barker family in 1967. The castle and surrounding gardens are spectacular, with sweeping views over the Otago Peninsula. It was well worth a stop, though the road to approach the castle was harrowing, especially driving on the left. If we had a choice I would have gladly taken a tour bus.
After a nice rest at the Bluestone on George, we were recharged and ready to move on. We drove north from Dunedin in our rental car, enjoying the beautiful scenery on our way to our next stop, Oamaru.
Since part of our trip was a penguin quest, our primary goal in Oamaru was to visit the blue penguin colony. But the town turned out to be so much more than a hub to visit penguins, and was one of our favorite stops on the trip.
Oamaru is a small town on the waterfront of North Otago with about 13,500 people. It has a lot of quaint shops and restaurants in its Victorian precinct, a sizable whiskey distillery, and like most New Zealand towns, friendly residents. It’s also the home of the Steampunk HQ, perhaps the largest showcase of its kind in the world.
If you’re not familiar with Steampunk, just think of Mad Max or perhaps a Nine Inch Nails video. It’s more than just a style of art, it’s more like an ethos or philosophy. Steampunk artists use old machines, technology and mechanics to create interactive wild and quirky works of art. There is a huge train engine out in front of the museum that breathes fire and makes incredible noises. Inside, there are monkeys made out of old cars, gigantic tractor bikes you can sit on, old computers rigged to play fantastic music, and an interactive hall of mirrors that must be seen to be understood. It was such a different experience and so engaging that it’s no surprise that it draws so many visitors to Oamaru each year.
The Steampunk ethos spills out into the rest of the town as well. We ate at a delicious waterfront cafe affiliated with the HQ with homemade tables and chairs out of old farm equipment. And the town playground was one of the most interesting we have ever visited – with a gigantic swing set and two Elephant shaped forts connected with a zipline.
After our Steampunk experience we got back to the business of seeing penguins. After our trip to Phillip Island, this time we got smart and bought tickets for the premium penguin experience, which included an optional visit to see the nesting little blue penguins and a private tour around the reserve.
We refer to the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony fondly as a gated community for penguins. The town created the reserve to protect the little penguins, who naturally live all around the town and often run into people. (in fact, there were Little penguins nesting inside a tube at the Steampunk HQ. We couldn’t see them but we could sure hear them!) Since these penguins are so small they can be killed easily by someone running them over in their car or by a dog or cat attack.
The reserve created a paradise for these penguin couples with hundreds of nesting boxes. The nesting boxes are simple structures made of wood and buried into rolling green hills. Each nest seems to have its own patch of green grass and there are plenty of plants and trees in the area, just like a suburban development. During our private tour we got to see several penguin nests through a spy window of sorts, looking down through a window into the box. During our visit the penguins were just starting to lay their eggs so we saw some of the first of the season.
After our private tour in the daytime, we came back in the evening to see the penguins come in from fishing. These little penguins have a regular schedule – half of them stay at home minding their eggs, while the other half spend the day feeding in the waters nearby. We took our premium seats in the front of the grandstand seating and waited patiently for the penguins to arrive.
The penguins started coming up the beach right around sunset, first in small groups who scouted the way for the others, then in bigger and bigger groups as they gained confidence. The reserve set up a wooden barrier to help lead the penguins into view, and we were thrilled as dozens of little penguins gathered around the small doorway, squawking and honking loudly.
We were able to follow the penguins along a path back to their nesting boxes, where they all gathered together and their mates came out to greet them. Some of the penguins stayed out honking for quite a while, others sparred with each other, and some just went straight to their boxes. We weren’t able to take photos at night, since the flash hurts the penguins, but you can find plenty of pictures at the official website. Of all our penguin experiences in New Zealand, this was the longest and most special.
Even if you’re not a penguin lover, both Dunedin and Oamaru were well worth visiting. Dunedin is a charming mid-sized university town and Oamaru was one of the most fun, quirky towns we’ve ever seen.