By Robert Pimm
Financial Times, November 20 2004
I’ve never been attacked by a penguin before. It’s scarier than you’d think. Close up, the yellow eyes, red beak and ear-piercing shriek are more dramatic than anything in Jurassic Park. Now I know why the Maori call the yellow-eyed penguin Hoiho, or “noise shouter”.
“She’s distressed,” says Tricia, our guide. “We’d better go.”
We turn to leave the hide. Everyone’s glaring at the photographer whose noisy auto-rewind spooked the penguin’s chick. He doesn’t notice. He’s too busy grinning at the thought of the images he’s just captured.
We went to Dunedin by accident. The second-largest city on the South Island of New Zealand is famous for its 19th-century architecture and Scottish flavour, neither a unique selling proposition for a family holiday. We found a gem: a lively, comfortable city with great beaches, exquisite countryside, and wildlife you can get amazingly close to.
Central Dunedin has a cosy, rather municipal flavour. A blue and yellow sign marks the Civil Defence Headquarters. Beyond the public art gallery, Bag End Books and Comics is selling the Lord of the Rings location handbook. The neo-Gothic arches of the Cathedral Church of St Paul the Apostle (Bishop: the Rt Revd Dr Penny Jamieson) could be in suburban London. But not the prayer on the board outside, addressed to: “God of the southern sea, and of these islands, of Maori, Paheka, and all who dwell in our lands…” Next door are the Municipal Chambers, “designed in the Italian Renaissance style by the Scottish architect Robert Arthur Lawson”. From the lamp-posts flags hang, inscribed with the words “I am Dunedin”. They show a Scots piper, a seagull, a palm tree, a castle, a rugby player and a beer garden. This seems a fair summary of the place.
On the edge of town, St Kilda Beach is a stunning stretch of white sand between rocky headlands. The sun’s searing, but there’s a refreshing breeze. The waves curl in past half a dozen surfers in neoprene suits, floating offshore, waiting to step into liquid. A man in a flat cap walks a dachshund.
Jamie Torrance, Nick Harwood and Kate Heath are surf lifeguards at St Kilda. All are students at the University of Otago in Dunedin, the oldest in New Zealand. “Dunedin’s great when it’s sunny,” Kate says. “I can get home from the beach in half an hour, or into the country.” “It’s awesome,” Nick says. “So close to everything. Wildlife, ski-ing, surfing, the city’s not too big, you can go tramping in the Southern Alps, or scuba diving. I’m usually after crayfish for the barbie.”
The winding road along the Otago Peninsula east of Dunedin offers vistas of staggering beauty: deserted coves, cliffs, and isolated stands of ancient trees. The Royal Albatross Centre is at Taiaroa Head, the tip of the Peninsula. The area teems with marine life: red-billed and black-backed gulls, Stuart Island shags, spotted shags, sooty shearwaters, blue penguins, yellow-eyed penguins, and royal albatrosses – the second largest of the world’s 24 breeds of albatross. Heather, our guide, starts off by dampening our expectations. Conditions for flying are poor, she says, there’s not enough wind, it’s too hot; we may only see birds on the ground. The albatross colony is small – just 120 birds. They spend 80% of their lives at sea, coming back to land to breed only once every two years.
By now we’re not expecting much at all. But as we climb the path to the observatory, a breeze springs up. Suddenly, above our heads, two albatrosses are soaring, then six, seven, majestic creatures swooping over us, everyone is oohing and aahing. They wheel around, impossibly graceful. Further off, more birds are coming in over the cliffs – in the distance they look like seagulls but the scale’s all wrong: the royal albatross has a wingspan of up to 3 metres and flies at over 115 kilometres an hour. We reel out into the dusk, tipsy with excitement, and drive round the corner to see the yellow-eyed penguins.
Penguin Place is the winner of the 1995 and 1997 New Zealand eco-tourism awards. The ticket staff do not undersell their product. People, they say, are “blown away” by the tour. “They come with a big telephoto lens and end up with their backs to the wall, the penguins get so close.” I listen politely. But as we approach Pipikeritu Beach and a sprinkling of dots on the hillside resolves itself into dozens of fur seals, the excitement returns. The big mammals have hauled themselves improbably far up the hillside, on the beach, on the grass, everywhere you look. The broad sweep of the bay below us is beautiful in the dying light. As we watch, a couple of yellow-eyed penguins appear from the surf and waddle up the beach. One of them sets off towards us and eventually climbs to a nesting box right next to the hide where we are standing.
The second hide is even better. We see two brown fluffy chicks a couple of metres away. A grey heron stands by the edge of a pond. More penguins bob in the water, like ducks. At the third hide, we come face to face with the mother and chick, close enough to reach out and touch. It feels a privilege to come so near to such a rare and beautiful creature. Above us, a skylark trills. A glow of achievement settles over our little group. Then someone takes a picture, and his camera starts whining.
With eco-tourism set to become a mainstay of the Dunedin economy, the lifeguards at St Kilda Beach look well qualified. Kate is studying to be an aviation medic, Jamie an environmental planner.
Nick says he wants to be a marine scientist. Jamie grins at him. “You going to deal with the seals, mate?” He turns to me. “When we’re on duty here, people always come up to us and say, ‘there’s a sick seal, mate, lying on the beach.’ We tell ’em it’s just sleeping.”
“Well,” Nick says, “it’s good that they’re worried, I guess.”