Time to move this narrative along or risk boring you. After several blissful days, even allowing for ‘a bit of a blow’ as the locals termed that virtual hurricane, we left the bucolic charm of the Catlins behind and drove to the big city.
Dunedin is closely linked to Edinburgh and the Scottish heritage was obvious. We stayed on the outskirts and did a day visit. There was a craft sale at Kings High School so we went inside and browsed.
Marigold bought ear rings, not an uncommon purchase, and I was captivated by a list of the school’s notable alumni. International rugby players, cricketers, politicians, scores of them. ‘Represented New Zealand’ asterisks were alongside many names and on several more the additional notation ‘captained New Zealand.’
Just in one school.
Dunedin isn’t a big city, scarcely more than a decent sized town by British standards, but what a heritage.
Baldwin Street, Dunedin, is supposedly the steepest street in the world. I wouldn’t have parked our van on it unattended that was for sure. Many years later we drove down many of the streets in San Francisco, one of which claimed to be the steepest in the world. I’m not being unfair when I express a preference for Baldwin Street’s claim.
Come on, San Francisco, don’t be mean, you’ve already got an iconic bridge, let New Zealand have the kudos of its steep road.
Leaving Dunedin, heading for Oamaru, we stopped off to look at some fine examples of Maori rock art we’d seen in so many places in South Island along the way as Alvin, the surfer had told us not to miss them. He’d also recommended a camp site in Oamaru and insisted we’d need a couple of days there to see everything. We stopped for coffee and as we rejoined the road saw a signpost for Shag Point Nature Reserve.
No, we aren’t that childish, it was the Nature Reserve aspect that was the attraction. Honest.
Not that others shared the same lofty detachment as we saw many people taking photographs of the various permutations made available by a simple place name. I even took one myself, to remind us of the backpacker hostel where some people we’d met ‘on the road’ had booked for their 10th wedding anniversary.
As the sign clearly shows, the name Lazy Shag refers to a species of cormorant, in this case a tired one. Honestly, the minds of some people! We did wonder though if the owners had called their hostel the Lazy Cormorant, would it still have the No Vacancies sign outside?
We saw seals in rock pools, lots of cormorants and walked across a lovely beach, but the best part of Shag Point was the weird and rather wonderful houses we found overlooking the ocean. It was a glorious location for a house, but we didn’t see much ‘traditional’ housing stock.
There were converted buses, lorries and a few ‘bitsas’ as a local called them – ‘bits of this, bits of that’ – houses cobbled together in a distinctly ramshackle fashion.
Our envy was boundless.
Oamaru turned out to be a very surprising town. It was once the largest and richest town in the whole of New Zealand, until, in 1868, a huge storm destroyed three cargo ships in one night and the town’s fortunes went down along with the vessels. What remained was a town full of large Victorian buildings as a stone, bricks and mortar legacy of its former wealth and importance.
The campsite was excellent and quite busy. We washed our clothes and bedding and went for a walk around the site. There were a couple of ‘Wicked’ campers like ours and we compared designs with their ‘owners.’
Most of the vans here were large, proper motorhomes and there were a few Winnebago type monsters as well, dwarfing everyone else.
‘Are you going on the trip?’ Someone called out.
Well, we tend to avoid organised ‘trips’ as a rule, but it turned out this was a planned excursion to see a couple of penguin colonies. We signed up for the penguin ‘bus straight away.
A brilliant decision.
The penguin related experience was fascinating, but if we hadn’t heard about this excursion we’d never have met the most interesting man we came across on the whole trip.
The bus was older than us and even more wheezy than me when going up hills, the seat padding was non existent and the windows were practically opaque. None of that mattered as our driver, tour guide, meeter and greeter and new best mate was Doug.
‘Just Doug, don’t call me Douglas or you’ll be walking back.’
There were only six of us on the bus, plus Doug and the other four passengers headed for the back seats and carried on drinking the vast quantity of beers they’d brought along with them. We sat up front and talked to Doug who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of penguins and a bottomless pride in his home town.
The Yellow-eyed Penguin is unique to New Zealand and then only in tiny numbers, all in this area of the far South. We’d missed out on seeing any in Curio Bay but Doug seemed convinced he’d find one or two for us on or around Bushy Beach.
‘There’s still a few knocking around in this bay we’re going to, but they’re real shy and easily spooked so you can’t go on the beach. They’re only just hanging on, it’s mostly stoats that kill the little fellers, but if they get scared they clear off out to sea and leave the young ‘uns in the nest so that’s the end of them.’
We said we’d be careful and Doug waved his hand at the group on the back seat who were singing lustily by now.
‘I reckon they’re better off left on the bus with the grog,’ he muttered. Which is exactly what happened when we reached the cliff top vantage point.
‘There’s a viewing hide over there, but if you don’t fancy spending time where blokes have been sitting and farting for hours, just keep an eye on the beach, you may be lucky.’
We looked down at the deserted beach. It was getting dark and we didn’t see any signs of life. It was pretty windy up on the cliff top and we were just about ready to give up when Doug appeared, hissing, ‘there’s one of the little ‘uns, on the path.’
We strained our eyes, saw nothing, but then Marigold gave a start and grabbed my arm. There it was, a wild penguin, only about twenty feet away from us and seemingly unaware of our presence. We watched it waddle along until it vanished from sight and by then there were two, much larger ones, on the beach, just coming ashore. Doug said it was okay to take a photo, but not to use flash, but as with so much that is magical in life a photograph does not do it justice.
Back on the bus the back seat drinking session was still in full swing. Doug wasn’t impressed, but he hadn’t got much time for anyone who was ‘on the grog.’ He told us his dad’s generation lived through ‘prohibition’ - Oamaru went ‘dry’ in 1906 and stayed that way until 1960, the last South Island district to allow alcohol sales. He walked to the back of the bus and said, very firmly, ‘pack the beers in or off you go, eh?’ after a few seconds deliberation the other four passengers picked up their crates of beer and got off the bus.
‘Didn’t expect that,’ Doug said, ‘but that’s me stoked, them going bush, it’s right curly is that.’*
*I’m paraphrasing as most of Doug’s remarks were pretty unintelligible. He spoke a very different language than anyone else we’d met on this trip. We understood ‘going bush’ and we’d heard ‘stoked’ enough often to know it meant Doug was pretty happy about the drinkers departure, but ‘curly’ – also an expression of something being very good appeared to be a word only used by Doug as we never heard it again.
Of course, Marigold and I say it all the time now as our tribute to Doug.
Doug drove us back into town to see the Blue Penguin colony in an abandoned quarry close to the harbour. Blue Penguins, the Blues, are unique to New Zealand and a tiny region of Australia. On the way he told us all about the Blues. They’re tiny, the smallest by far of the 18 known penguin species and only come ashore later in the evening to avoid predators. They leave their little rock burrows at dawn, spend the day at sea and return at dusk.
We arrived at a viewing stand where tour groups were being rigidly organised by a very bossy woman. Doug told us to say ‘we’re with Doug’ and nobody would ask us for payment. We did and they didn’t. We’d already had a quick look, far enough away from the burrows to avoid scaring the chicks waiting for their parents to return and could hear them crying out, quite noisily.
The bossy woman was telling everyone not to take photos as the penguins were easily frightened and would return to the sea, abandoning their chicks if we behaved ‘inappropriately.’
She reminded me of Mrs Eardley, one of my first ever teachers at Primary School who still causes me occasional sleepless nights. #
# No, of course she doesn’t, but she was a pretty scary disciplinarian and more than a match for a not entirely well behaved six year old schoolboy.
There was a clever infrared lighting system in place allowing the watchers to see the booming surf breaking on the beach almost next to us without scaring the penguins and about a hundred spectators gasped as the first penguins were sighted, fighting the fierce waves to clamber onto the rocks and reach the safety of home.
It was an amazing sight. There were really tiny, repeatedly battered by the waves, clambering on to the rocks only to be swept back again as the waves receded and regrouping to try again.
‘Just imagine, swimming around all day and then coming home to all this,’ Marigold whispered.
It was certainly a tough life being a Blue. After a bunch had struggled ashore, almost everybody in the viewing area left. We stayed where we were and were joined by Doug who told us he’d ‘been for a smoko with me offsider, he’s mad as a meat axe about the footie club,’ which translates as taking a short break with one of his mates who was annoyed about something connected to the local rugby club. We were getting the hang of Doug by now.
‘Watch out for the drill sergeant,’ Doug whispered, ‘he’s checking for them as haven’t turned in yet.’
Yes, there he was, a lone penguin perched atop the rocks, looking out to sea. Looking anxiously, we surmised, for a missing group from the colony. ‘They spend all day out in the ocean fishing on their own but when it starts to get dark, they gather together and come ashore in groups of 20 or so. Suppose they think that’s safer,’ Doug said and as he spoke the watcher on the shore started hopping from side to side.
‘He’s spotted ‘em,’ said Doug and within moments we saw them too, struggling ashore under the watchful eye of the ‘drill sergeant.’ A brilliant evening, but Doug hadn’t finished yet. Talking non stop he took us on a guided tour of his home town, his civic pride shining out brightly. The main buildings in the centre, built of local white stone, have been preserved and restored, but Doug was equally keen to show us many examples of faded Victorian splendour. This was once the major trading hub of New Zealand and although Victorian buildings are commonplace in the U.K. here they are revered and we paid them due deference.
‘People reckon the Big Smoke is the place to live these days,’ said Doug, ‘but you wouldn’t get me away from here. Centre of the universe, this is.’ We established that the ‘Big Smoke’ referred to Dunedin, by no means a big city by European standards, but couldn’t fault the enthusiasm of this proud son of Oamaru for the place he would always call home.
We never saw Doug again, but before we left, from a distance, sitting on the railway platform, legs dangling, was his 'offsider.' We'll never forget Doug, remarkable man, one of life’s true characters and the provider of so many words and phases still in everyday use in our house.
We were on the last leg of our journey around and through New Zealand by now. We’d been as far South as possible and our final destination would be the city of Christchurch where we would return the rented van and jet off back home. Christchurch was not very far away up the East Coast, but of course we eschewed the direct route and there were many detours yet to be taken. More of that in the next blog. I must go and do some more photograph sorting and scouring of our joint memories before I can get to that.