Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Edinburgh of the south

I've been spending a very happy few days in Dunedin, where a bunch of Scottish emigrants set up shop in 1848 - presumably because the changeable weather and tearing winds made them feel at home! In all seriousness, it's a lovely little city, designed to mimic Edinburgh (even the name is the Gaelic version), right down to its street names. As a result, the architecture is chock-full of lovely stone buildings, with St Paul's Cathedral particularly pretty, made of creamy Oamaru stone and with an airy vaulted ceiling inside.

In addition, they've got a solid art collection (including my new favourites Rita Angus and C F Goldie), plus some seriously avant-garde temporary exhibitions - a photographer of hidden America, Taryn Simon, I thought was great; another chap, whose oeuvre seems to consist of words painted on cardboard, not so much. Plus there's a gorgeous National Trust-like manor house from 1904 called Olveston, which was willed to the city by its final owner in the Seventies. After the city had been forcibly dissuaded from turning it into flats for students, conservationists set about restoring it and now take guided tours round this perfectly preserved Arts & Crafts country house - lovely.

But lovely as it is, it couldn't compete with the Royal Albatrosses on the Otago Peninsula. I took a nature tour down there the other evening - it's the only mainland-based breeding area in the world - and we saw dozens gliding in on the updrafts, coming in to land. It was an experience I'll never have anywhere else, and I feel very privileged - as I did to see the incredibly rare and shy Yellow-Eyed Penguins, a little later on the same tour. The company I went with have exclusive access to a private beach, where the farmer who owns it has planted penguin-friendly grasses for them to nest in on the headland, and as a result the population has stabilised where elsewhere they are nearly extinct. We hunkered down in hides and saw parents and chicks, plus adults surfing in to land before beginning the long hop up the hillside (up to 100m) to their homes.

And in between all this I've been having a wonderfully sociable time, hanging out with the ladies in my dorm (Ruthie, the 64-year-old free spirit, Sarah, a Canadian who's about to start teacher training at Otago University, and German Anna, who's just finished six months as an au pair and is now kicking over the traces) and doing stuff like the brewery tour with them (highlight: tasting six varieties of ale!). Plus I've been made to feel incredibly welcome by a friend of a friend and her husband, and it was very special to be part of a family for an evening, just spending time in someone's home. Thera, if you're reading this, thank you!

So after such a great time, I'm all set up for the next adventure - remote and wild Stewart Island, which is free from predators so New Zealand's defenceless flightless birds can thrive there! More when I get back...

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