The southeastern corner of the South Island contains some of the least-visited parts of New Zealand, yet packs in the gems. The darkly Gothic harbourside city of Dunedin is a seat of learning and culture, influenced by the country’s oldest university and thriving Scottish immigrant traditions. Elsewhere it is all about wild nature. On Dunedin’s doorstep, the windswept Otago Peninsula is a phenomenal wildlife haven, mostly farmland but fringed with opportunities to see yellow-eyed and blue penguins, fur seals and albatrosses within 5km of each other. South of Dunedin there are yet more exemplary opportunities to see wildlife at its primal best along the dramatic Catlins Coast. Provincial Invercargill is the gateway to Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third island and superb territory for stepping back a few years and spotting kiwi.
The “Edinburgh of the South”, DUNEDIN takes its name from the Gaelic translation of its Scottish counterpart, with which it shares street and suburb names. Founded by Scottish settlers, its heyday was in the 1860s and 1870s as the commercial centre for the gold-rush towns of inland Central Otago. This left an enduring legacy of imposing Gothic Revival architecture fashioned from volcanic bluestone and creamy limestone.
On Dunedin’s outskirts, Port Chalmers hangs onto a slightly bohemian, rough-around-the-edges feel, repaying a quick visit by combining it with the nearby Orokonui Ecosanctuary. Across the harbour, the Otago Peninsula packs in the wildlife highlights with penguins, albatrosses and seals all competing for attention with Larnach Castle and its fine grounds.
To the south, the pace slows along the untamed Catlins Coast, with yet more wonderful opportunities for spotting marine wildlife, but in an altogether wilder setting. Hills cloaked in native forest come right down to a shoreline indented with rocky bays, long sweeps of sand and spectacular geological formations.
New Zealand’s southernmost city is Invercargill, bordered by the rich pastureland of Southland’s farming communities. The city is the springboard for Bluff, the country’s oldest European town, and magical Stewart Island. Relatively few visit New Zealand’s third island, but those who do are rewarded by the extraordinary birdlife, particularly in Mason Bay and on Ulva Island.
Kiwis from more northern parts delight in condemning the climate of the southern South Island, and it’s true that the further south you go the wetter and more changeable it gets. Come between November and April and you’ll experience daytime highs approaching 20°C and catch the best of the wildlife during the breeding season.Read More
The yellow-eyed penguin
The yellow-eyed penguin
Found only in southern New Zealand, the endangered yellow-eyed penguin, or hoiho, is considered the most ancient of all living penguins but today numbers only around four thousand. It evolved in forests free of predators, but human disturbance, loss of habitat and the introduction of ferrets, stoats and cats have had a devastating effect. The small mainland population of just a few hundred occupies nesting areas dotted along the wild southeast coast of the South Island (from Oamaru to the Catlins), while other smaller colonies inhabit the coastal forest margins of Stewart Island and offshore islets, and New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands of Auckland and Campbell.
Male and female adults are identical in colouring, with pink webbed feet and a bright yellow band that encircles the head, sweeping over their pale yellow eyes. Standing around 65cm high and weighing 5–6kg – making them the third-largest penguin species after the Emperor and the King – they have a life expectancy of up to twenty years. Their diet consists of squid and small fish, and hunting takes them up to 40km offshore and to depths of 100m.
Maori named the bird hoiho, meaning “the noise shouter”, because of the distinctive high-pitched calls (an exuberant trilling) it makes at night when greeting its mate at the nest. Unlike other penguins, the yellow-eyed does not migrate after its first year, but stays near its home beach, making daily fishing trips and returning as daylight fails.
The penguins’ breeding season lasts for 28 weeks, from mid-August to early March. Eggs are laid between mid-September and mid-October, and both parents share incubation duties for about 43 days. The eggs hatch in November and for the next six weeks the chicks are constantly guarded against predators. By the time the down-covered chicks are six or seven weeks old, their rapid growth gives them voracious appetites and both parents must fish daily to satisfy them. The fledglings enter the sea for the first time in late February or early March and journey up to 500km north to winter feeding grounds. Fewer than fifteen percent of fledged chicks reach breeding age, but those that do return to the colony of their birth.