Riding one of the world’s great train trips

web dunedin stn IMG_0633The historic Taieri Gorge Railway is considered one of the world’s great train trips. On an overcast day, during a 10 day trip to the southern New Zealand city of Dunedin, I checked it out.

Leaving the well-photographed 1906 Dunedin Railway Station, Graeme Smart and John Chapman drive us through tunnels and over viaducts … what I didn’t know was that I would get an invitation to ride in the cab for a while!  It’s tough being a travel writer at times. Not!

Judy, the guard, tells me she started as a volunteer about ten years ago and about 5 years ago qualified as a guard – which includes helping with shunting I believe.

“It’s an amazing job! I have fantastic moving scenery from my office and it changes daily, and with the seasons.”

However, she has also been up to her knees in snow while digging down to find the switch controls.  Fearfully, she was only 3 months into her job when the train and car collided:  a tough, and scary memory that’s still vivid.

“It seems my training just kicked in and I went into another mode and did what I had to do.” What a woman!

The scenery includes; pine forests, sheep, cattle, llama, horses. Add hills and rivers and bush to the tunnels, viaducts, bridges and tannin coloured streams and this trip is fantastic. There’s also a dog statue to commemorate all working dogs and I’m not surprised my fellow passengers were enthralled.

Those around me were from the UK and the USA, from Taranaki and Singapore.

But enough talk:  sit back and enjoy just some (40) of the many photos I took in this, the biggest slide show I have put into a blog.

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My ten days in Dunedin – was spent traveling in a NZ RentaCar  and if you too are in a car, parking is available at the north end of the station.

I have a copy of the booklet Taieri Gorge Railway. A photo guide by Antony Hamel … its last page is named ‘Train Enthusiasts’ Page.

It talks about trainspotting ‘can become obsessive;  he also warns ‘Foaming at the mouth when in the presence of a train requires medical attention.’

So, you have been warned!

A walking tour gets to the heart of Dunedin

The city could easily be called New Zealand’s city of firsts: first university, first medical school, first dental school, the first newspaper, first art school, and the first public art gallery.

For Athol, the city is an art gallery and history book and he guides us with enthusiasm around the inner city

IMG_1626Dunedin, New Zealand’s oldest city is apparently drier than Auckland; warmer than Christchurch, and less windy than Wellington. Christchurch’s quakes have also put Dunedin at the top of the list of best historic buildings in New Zealand. The inner city in particular has many Gothic and classical Victorian-Edwardian buildings and I join Athol Parks (founder of City Walks) for a 2-hour stroll around them.

Otaku, as Māori called the area, was first settled by Europeans in 1848 when the Scottish settlers arrived. It quickly became extremely wealthy from gold and state-led investments and is considered to have funded the rest of New Zealand’s growth.

The often considered ‘austere or dour Scots’ community was soon overrun with international gold-miners as well as Jewish and Chinese settlers who have left a lasting mark on the city. This includes the fabric merchants Hallensteins who were among the earliest Jewish arrivals. Interestingly, Dunedin still has the world’s southernmost synagogue. Vogel’s, Bell Tea, the oven-maker Shacklock, Cadbury and Speight’s brewery were all founded here.

The city could easily be called New Zealand’s city of firsts: first university, first medical school, first dental school, the first newspaper, first art school, and the first public art gallery.

For Athol, the city is an art gallery and history book and he guides us with enthusiasm around the inner city.From Robbie Burns and St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in the Octagon to the Fortune Theatre, which began life as a Wesleyan Church then down Moray Place to the former Jewish synagogue. It then became a Freemason temple, then art gallery, and now a fabulous looking inner city home.

Walking and talking Athol tells us, ‘I want visitors to understand what makes Dunedin a special and creative place’ he says as we head to the railway station. The City Council bought the iconic railway station for $1. Now restored to its full 1906 splendour, it’s now, eclectically, site for the weekly farmers’ market; every year the platform becomes the runway for the city’s pre-eminent fashion show, and the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame lives upstairs.

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Beside the station, an art deco bus station has been restored and combined with the expanded Toitu Otago Settlers Museum, which re-opened in 2012 – and which I totally recommend

IMG_1638The First Presbyterian Church of Otago had been designed to sit on a large hill and the Free Church of Scotland settlers thought they had claimed the city’s prime site and had a 29-year-old architect, Robert Lawson, design an extremely un-Presbyterian-like church. However, by the time his winning plan was built, convict labour had lowered Bell Hill by 12m to provide fill for the reclamation of the harbour below. Although not as prominent as first envisaged, the cathedral-like structure remains impressive. Of course the English Anglican church ended up with pride of place in the Octagon, the city centre – although the Scottish bard, Robbie, stands with his back to it! In those early days the Reverend Thomas Burns, a nephew of the poet provided spiritual guidance for the new community.

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It was the Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland that founded Dunedin at the head of Otago Harbour. Its name comes from Dùn Èideann, the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland and the city’s surveyor was told to copy the characteristics of Edinburgh.

Athol, under questioning, tells us he studied history and politics at the University of Otago. He also has a historical novel underway. Its beginnings started with history project about the local pie-cart which made him realise history could come alive. Victorian Dunedin is the setting for his uncompleted novel, and considers the relationship between Dunedin’s early architects. (Lawson and Petre)

I liked his comment that ”Architecture is the most public art form, but most people pay it little regard. If you come to appreciate it and learn about it, it enriches your life’.

Walking his dogs around the street every day he thought ‘it would be great to show people this place.’ City Walks started in 2006 after deciding he was going to have to work for most of the rest of my life, ‘So, I might as well do work I enjoy’. Now, for six months a year, for six days a week, he guides walking tours around the inner city – and despite never having lived here I have strong Scottish roots and found this tour well worth doing.

It also reminded me of the huge losses Canterbury suffered during the 2010/11 quakes – I’m glad New Zealand still has its history alive and being preserved in this southern city.

My ten days in Dunedin – was spent traveling in a NZ RentaCar and the City walk ended with us being offered a wee dram and some haggis!IMG_1694

Chinese gardens were high on my Dunedin ‘to-do’ list.

The Dunedin Chinese Gardens were high on my ‘to-do’  list and I suggest you put them on yours too. Along with the Scottish settlers, the Chinese have been in the Otago region since 1863 (incidentally, the same year my mother’s family arrived on Banks Peninsula,  from Cornwall.)

This Chinese Scholar-garden, Lan Yuan, is tucked in beside railway tracks and the Toitu OtagoEarly Settlers  Museum in the city centre – on the corner of Rattray & Cumberland Streets. It’s the only authentic Chinese garden in New Zealand and in fact is the first in the Southern Hemisphere and one of less than half a dozen outside China which surprised me.

Despite being in the city, it is an amazingly peaceful and quiet place and I know when I’m back in Otago I will revisit this wonderful garden.

Look at the photos and I know you too will love them.

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Disappearing gun in Dunedin

As well as the albatross nesting on Taiaroa Head ( Royal Albatross Centre) the area is also home to the world’s only working Armstrong Disappearing Gun.

I had no idea what a ‘disappearing gun’ was, but it seems it got its name by recoiling back into the pit by the force of  the firing of it.

As well as seeing the gun in its underground circular pit I was also a good place to see other albatross nests that are unseen from the observation room I’d been in earlier. ( see more on my blog)

 

Facts for you gun enthusiasts:

  • 1886 manufactured in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England
  • 1889 installed in Otago
  • 6-inch breechloading gun on a hydro-pneumatic carriage
  • weight 18.6 ton
  • range *km ( 8,800 yards)

So, if you are a gun or history buff make sure you add the Fort Tour to your bird watching!

One of Dunedin’s must see attractions: Royal Albatross Centre

Worldwide, albatross were once hunted for their feathers, which were then used to make hats. They have the biggest wingspan of any bird, reaching up to 3.5m (11.5ft) and the larger albatross species can spend up to five years at sea.

Tora (in Māori) live over 60 years, they mate for life and sadly some do not find another if their partner dies. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the killing of a “harmless albatross” dooms the ship’s crew.

3-metre wing span
3-metre wing span

While in Dunedin, traveling in a NZ RentaCar and staying in some fabulous cottage accommodation, I visit the award-winning Royal Albatross Centre – for a 90 minute tour. Very handy from my Ngaio Cottage base on the peninsula.

Known as Pukekura  in Maori, Taiaroa Head is the place for albatross viewing, interactive marine conservation displays, and historical tours of Taiaroa Head and is one of the local must-visit places.

In Dunedin, New Zealand, it’s owned and operated by the Otago Peninsula Trust, a charitable trust, whose objective is the protection and enhancement of the Otago Peninsula – the only mainland place in the world to view Northern Royal Albatross in their natural habitat. This site is ideal as its very windy – giving them good flying conditions.

The first record of a nest and egg here was in 1920 but because of predators (cats, rats, stoats, ferrets) and interference by people, it wasn’t until 1938 that the first chick was successfully fledged. In 2007 the 500th chick hatched – well done to their guardians. A 7-month old chick weighs about 11kg while its parents are only 8 or 9! No wonder they need to fly at speeds of around 120 ks to get out to sea, find food and get back to feed the quickly growing chick.

This is my 3rd time here and for the first time I understand why we can only see them from behind glass: it seems they are very noise sensitive so keeping us invisible and quiet ensures they’re not disturbed by our “ohhs and ahhs” of delight!

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Worldwide all 22 species of albatross  are in trouble; eight are critically endangered, nine are classed as vulnerable and the remaining five are likely to become endangered, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Sadly the birds are inadvertently caught by fishing boats that use baited long lines and it’s estimated that this kills more than 100,000 albatrosses a year – about one every  five minutes.

More of my Dunedin  stories to come will be about  penguins,  boat trips,  settlers museum, heritage city walks, the Taieri Gorge train, Chinese gardensbutterfly house and the Orokonui eco-sanctuary and more, adding to those already written. (Sign up to get them as emails as soon as they’re published – top right on this page)

Otago Peninsula – ‘finest example of ecotourism in the world’

Otago Peninsula was a volcano some 10 or 13 million years ago – give or take a week or three!

65-thousand years ago it became an island when sea levels rose and, more recently, it became a peninsula.  Captain Cook and the hardy self-sufficient pioneers fought battles with the elements along the notorious 2000 kilometres coastline which is now scattered with shipwrecks.

The area is not just a day trip from Dunedin but a destination in its own right and during my ten days in Dunedin – traveling in a  car from  NZ RentaCar – and I spent time in Ngaio Cottage in Broad Bay.

This cottage, built in the 1930s,  when my hosts, Julz Asher & Lutz Ritter, bought it I’m told ‘it looked very different’ to the charming, well-appointed accommodation it is today. ‘It was unlivable. In fact, everything is new – except a few boards,’ Lutz said.

The fittings and furniture were chosen with care, resulting in beautiful and tasteful atmosphere. I have no idea how many stars this place has, but I’d give it 4 or 5!

This is a fabulous place to stay and use as a base to explore the peninsula, and the Dunedin region – check out these photos.

 

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I’m not the only one who rates Otago Peninsula:

  • Neville Peat a local nature writer based in Broad Bay says the whole area is a ‘kind of supermarket for marine life, souped up by currents and adjacent deep-water canyons.
  • Botanist and environmentalist David Bellamy said the peninsula is ‘the finest example of ecotourism in the world’   while Mark Carwardine,  zoologist and outspoken conservationist, writer, TV and radio presenter, wildlife photographer, columnist,  best-selling author, a wildlife tour operator calls New Zealand a “wildlife hotspot”. He also says it’s one of the best places in the world to see great wildlife and recently he was on a whirlwind tour, searching for our equivalent to Africa’s ‘big five’, the New Zealand ‘small five’ – all endangered species: hector’s dolphinkeakiwituatarayellow-eyed penguin all  which are found on or around this amazing outcrop of land.

I have written some stories about the area, and more to come about –  albatross, penguins, castleboat trips, fur seals, settlers museum, bus stops, birds, gardens, heritage city walks, the Taieri Gorge train, Chinese gardens, butterfly house and the Orokonui eco-sanctuary and more.

 

View of the harbour from the couch
View of the harbour from the couch

 

 

Road trip – Otago Peninsula, Dunedin NZ

watermarked-use Bus IMG_1106

 

John Noakes, the bus stop artist of Dunedin, New Zealand started the idea of painting bus shelters after seeing children hiding from the rain in dark bus stops. He painted about 65 of them – a fine legacy and makes for attractive driving along, and around, the Otago Peninsula.

The New Zealand rental car company I used around Dunedin  was  New Zealand Rent A Car  (branches all over NZ)

 

 

 

See what locals say about him

New Zealands only historical castle – Larnach, Dunedin

After posting on Facebook how thrilled I was to be staying at Larnach Castle  a friend warns me. ‘Let’s see how chipper we are when the moon is up and dancing amongst them scudding peninsula clouds. Cue spooky noises. Spooky place.’ It sounded like a voice of experience!

Atmospheric mist ideal for talk of ‘spooky sounds’

I check into one of the six guest rooms in the Stables, which were built before the 1871 castle:  they are a charming 140 year old Category 1 listed historic building in the grounds of the castle.

The lower part of the Stables includes the breakfast area, guest lounge, laundry, internet site, and a display highlighting the original Stable horse stalls. I’m amazed at the beautifully cobblestoned brick floor which has remained firmly in place since they were laid: the workers were obviously skilled in their job.

Despite being an historic place this property is privately owned and receives no government or city funding and relies on its visitors and overnight guests to support it. Accommodation ranges from luxury to the more basic, shared-bathrooms, in the Stables. My bedroom was spacious and the bed very comfortable.

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Beside the old coach-house is more accommodation called The Lodge  which has twelve themed rooms (including Scottish, Enchanted Forest, New Zealand, Kauri, Pink, Goldrush and Victorian) and guests staying there join us in the Stables for breakfast – I meet a group of Boston women bikers over our amazingly large breakfasts. They’re in New Zealand for a two-week trip around the South Island with Paradise Motorbike Tours. They’re thrilled with both the tour and the Stables.

Just some praise includes ‘This place is phenomenal’; ‘Not many places a motorbike group can stay as well as families’; ‘Well-run and friendly’ and, they’re proud to be the oldest women’s bike group in the USA.  They (16 women on 12 bikes) tell me about their trip so far:

‘Every hill I go over it’s like a new country, a new world. I saw a turquoise lake I’ve never seen before – I want to paint my bathroom that colour.’

‘New Zealand gets in your eyes.’

‘I haven’t   stopped smiling.’

‘Traffic moves over for us – in Boston they try to run us over!’

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Like me, they love the original floor, the iron mangers, and horse-box still in the stables-come-breakfast room and the baronial-style castle that William Larnach built for his family. Rich from the gold rush era (as a banker) he was born in Australia to Scottish parents, and during a trip to London was appointed as the manager of the Bank of Otago. Three years later he had bought the land with its great views of the Otago Harbour and soon after started work on ‘the camp’ which locals soon started calling ‘the castle’. The road is still called Camp Road.

???????????????????????????????The castle must have been the region’s biggest employer as it had some 200 workers and material was bought from around the world. As well as using local and Oamaru stone, kauri from the North Island, slate from Wales, mosaics from Belgium, bricks from Marseille, he also bought about 20 tons of French glass. All these were dragged, by oxen, up the steep 1000-foot hill (305 metres). He also imported stonemasons from Scotland, wood-carvers from England, and plasterers from Italy to build his dream home that’s well worth visiting!

New Zealand Gardens of International Significance  says of this private garden  ‘The scenery is spectacular and though the garden is subjected to wind and low rainfall it contains a unique collection of plants seldom seen elsewhere The plantings reflect the owner’s interest in New Zealand plants and in their southern hemisphere relations.’ Read more here.

No trip to the Dunedin region is complete unless you visit this New Zealand ‘castle’ which of course is not a replica of the European castles but a mansion built as a new-world, down under version of the old-world Gothic revival style.

PS: Spooky noises or ghosts – I never heard or saw them but if you do or have please add to the comments below.

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Otago Peninsula: ‘finest example of eco-tourism’

Dunedin, New Zealand: setting the scene for a series of blogs about attractions in the area including ‘the peninsula’, the ‘ finest example of eco-tourism.’

dunedin rainbow IMG_20140123_163041

Otago Peninsula was a volcano some 10 or 13 million years ago – give or take a week or two.

65 thousand years ago it became an island when sea levels rose and, more recently, now a  peninsula, Captain Cook and the hardy self-sufficient pioneers fought battles along  the notorious 2000 kilometres coastline which is now scattered with shipwrecks.

With an annual rainfall of 700/800 millimetres and mists that roll in from the sea it now has 5% of the area covered in bush: mainly broadleaf trees and kanaka.

  • Neville Peat a local nature writer based in Broad Bay says the area is a ‘kind of supermarket for marine life, souped up by currents and adjacent deep-water canyons. The accolades continue.
  • Botanist and environmentalist David Bellamy said the peninsula is ‘the finest example of ecotourism in the world’   while Mark Carwardine,  zoologist and outspoken conservationist, writer, TV and radio presenter, wildlife photographer, columnist,  best-selling author, a wildlife tour operator calls New Zealand a “wildlife hotspot”.

He says it’s one of the best places in the world to see great wildlife and recently he was on a whirlwind tour, searching for our equivalent to Africa’s ‘big five’, the New Zealand ‘small five’ endangered species: hector’s dolphinkeakiwituatarayellow-eyed penguin .. all found on or around this amazing outcrop of land.

This area is not just a day trip from Dunedin but a place to base yourself – a destination in its own right.

So watch this space (make it easy by signing up for email updates on the top right-hand corner of this page) for stories about albatross, penguins, castle,  boat trips, fur seals, settlers museum, bus stops, birds, gardens, fabulous cottage accommodation, heritage city walks, the Taieri Gorge train, Chinese gardens, butterfly house and the Orokonui ecosanctuary and more!

The New Zealand rental car company I used in Dunedin  was the  New Zealand Rent A Car  (branches all over NZ)

NZ Rent A Car outside my accommodation at the sables
NZ Rent A Car outside my accommodation at the Stables, Larnach Castle

 

Photo of the day: Otago Peninsula.

Hoopers Inlet. Otago Peninsula. Dunedin New Zealand
Hoopers Inlet. Otago Peninsula. Dunedin New Zealand

The New Zealand rental car company I used all around Dunedin  was the  New Zealand Rent A Car  (branches all over NZ)