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.
The small but busy fishing town and port of BLUFF, 27km south of Invercargill, occupies a slender-waisted peninsula with its man-made harbour on one side and wild Foveaux Strait on the other. Continuously settled since 1824, Bluff is the oldest European town in New Zealand and it is showing its age a little. Parts look decidedly run-down and most visitors are here to hop on the ferry to Stewart Island, but the place has a great setting, a long history and some fine short walks. Unless you have your own vehicle, seeing the town will involve a good deal of walking, as it spreads along the shoreline for about 6km.
Bluff’s famous oysters are celebrated at the annual Bluff Oyster & Food Festival (third weekend in May; w bluffoysterfest.co.nz), an event the local organizers claim is “unsophisticated and proud of it”.
Foveaux Strait, between the South Island and Stewart Island, has a fearsome reputation as a rough stretch of water, right in the path of the Roaring Forties with no land east or west until you hit South America. Mostly flat-floored and just 20–30m deep, this causes waves to rear up and further compound the discomfort of ferry passengers and those out harvesting the strait’s bounty.
The best-known foodstuff pulled from the waters hereabouts is the sweet Bluff oysters, a highly sought-after delicacy dredged from April until September then processed in local oyster sheds before being sent all over the country.
Foveaux Strait is also home to a cluster of overgrown rocks known as the Titi or Muttonbird Islands, where local Maori have the traditional right to harvest sooty shearwater chicks in April and early May. These muttonbirds (titi in Maori) are regarded as a delicacy, though the anchovy-duck flavour is something few Pakeha acquire.
The rugged coastal route linking Dunedin and Invercargill is one of the less-travelled highways on the South Island, traversing some of the country’s wildest scenery along the Catlins Coast. It is part of the Southern Scenic Route (w southernscenicroute.co.nz), which continues on to Te Anau in Fiordland.
The region is home to swathes of native forest, most protected as the Catlins State Forest Park, consisting of rimu, rata, kamahi and silver beech. Roaring southeasterlies and the remorseless sea have shaped the coastline into plunging cliffs, windswept headlands, white-sand beaches, rocky bays and gaping caves, many of which are accessible. Wildlife abounds, including several rare species of marine bird and mammal, and the whole region rings with birdsong most of the year.
The best way to enjoy the Catlins Coast is to invest at least a couple of days and take it easy. From Nugget Point in South Otago (just southeast of Balclutha) to Waipapa Point in Southland (60km northeast of Invercargill), the wild scenery stretches unbroken, dense rainforest succumbing to open scrub as you cut through deep valleys and past rocky bays, inlets and estuaries. The coast is home to penguins (both blue and yellow-eyed), dolphins, several species of seabird and, at certain times of year, migrating whales. Elephant seals, fur seals, and increasingly, the rare New Zealand sea lion are found on the sandy beaches and grassy areas, and birds – tui, resonant bellbirds, fantails and grey warblers – are abundant in the mossy depths of the forest. Even colourful rarities such as kakariki and mohua can be seen if you’re patient.
The Catlins, one of the last refuges of the flightless moa, was a thriving hunting ground for Maori but by 1700 they had moved on, to be supplanted by European whalers and sealers in the 1830s. Two decades later, having decimated marine mammal stocks, they too departed. Meanwhile, in 1840, Captain Edward Cattlin arrived to investigate the navigability of the river that bears his (misspelt) name, purchasing a tract of land from the chief of the Ngai Tahu. Boatloads of loggers soon followed, lured by the great podocarp forests. Cleared valleys were settled and bush millers supplied Dunedin with much of the wood needed for housing – in 1872 more timber was exported from the Catlins than anywhere else in New Zealand. From 1879 the rail line from Balclutha began to extend into the region, bringing sawmills, schools and farms with it. Milling continued into the 1930s, but gradually dwindled and today’s tiny settlements are shrunken remnants of the once-prosperous logging industry.
One of the most varied walks in the region is the private Catlins Top Track (Nov–April only; 22km loop; t 03 415 8613, w catlins-ecotours.co.nz), which begins and ends at Papatowai and crosses sweeping beaches, farmland, privately owned bush and even a stretch of disused railway line, delivering fascinating geology, a great variety of flora and fauna and true tranquillity. It can be walked in a day (9–10hr) but is better appreciated in two leisurely days, spending the night in a converted 1960s trolley bus high up on a spectacular viewpoint; the bus comes equipped with one double bed and four single bunks, electric lighting, a gas camping stove with cutlery and dishes, a gas heater in winter, and its own water supply – there’s even a separate loo with a view. All walkers are given an excellent booklet that details each section of the walk accompanied by a map. Bring your own food, drinking water and sleeping bag.
Contrasting seascapes come together at a windswept headland that separates two of the most beautiful bays in this region packed with such things. To the north, the beautiful sandy curve of Porpoise Bay forms superb rolling breakers where Hector’s dolphins love to surf. To the south, the rocky wave-cut platform of Curio Bay is littered with the remains of a petrified forest, its fossilized Jurassic trees clearly visible at low tide. Over 170 million years ago, when most of New Zealand still lay beneath the sea, this would have been a broad, forested floodplain. Today, the seashore, composed of several layers of forest buried under blankets of volcanic mud and ash, is littered with fossilized tree stumps and fallen logs. Steps lead to a beach where, in places, you can even pick out ancient tree rings. Return at sunrise or just before dusk when up to a dozen yellow- eyed penguins stagger ashore to their burrows in the bushes at the back of Curio Bay. If you want to get in the surf, contact Catlins Surf (T03 246 8552, Wcatlins-surf .co.nz), who rent boards, offer surfing lessons and give you a chance to try stand-up paddleboarding.
Two extremely rare species – the New Zealand sea lion (Phocarctos hookeri a.k.a. Hooker’s sea lion) and Hector’s dolphin (Cephalarhynchus hectori) – are found only in New Zealand waters.
New Zealand sea lions mostly live around the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands, 460km south of the South Island, but some breeding also takes place on the Otago Peninsula, along the Catlins Coast and around Stewart Island. The large, adult male sea lions are black to dark brown, have a mane over their shoulders, weigh up to 400kg and reach lengths of over 3m. Adult females are buff to silvery grey and much smaller – less than half the weight and just under 2m. Barracuda, red cod, octopus, skate and, in spring, paddle crabs make up their diet, with New Zealand sea lions usually diving 200m or less for four or five minutes – although they are capable of achieving depths of up to 500m. Pups are born on the beach, then moved by the mother at about six weeks to grassy swards, shrubland or forest, and suckled for up to a year.
Sea lions prefer to haul out on sandy beaches and in summer spend much of the day flicking sand over themselves to keep cool. Unlike seals they don’t fear people. If you encounter one on land, give it a wide berth of at least 10m (30m during the Dec–Feb breeding season), and if it rears up and roars, back off calmly but quickly – they can move fast.
The Hector’s dolphin, with its distinctive black and white markings, is the smallest dolphin in the world and, with a population around 7,000, is also one of the rarest. It’s only found in New Zealand inshore waters – mostly around the coast of the South Island – with eastern concentrations around Banks Peninsula, Te Waewae Bay and Porpoise Bay, plus western communities between Farewell Spit and Haast. They roam up to 8km from shore in winter but in summer prefer shallow waters within 1km of the coastline, catching mullet, arrowsquid, red cod, stargazers and crabs. Female dolphins are typically a little larger than the males, growing to 1.2–1.4m and weighing 40–50kg. They give birth from November to mid-February, and calves stay with their mothers for up to two years.
In summer and autumn, the tiny resident population at Porpoise Bay regularly enters the surf zone and even comes within 10m of the beach. Hector’s dolphins are shy and being disturbed can impact on feeding, which in turn affects their already low breeding rate. If you’re spending time around them, be sure to follow DOC rules (posted locally), which essentially forbid touching, feeding, surrounding and chasing dolphins and encourage you to keep a respectful distance. Swimming around pods with juveniles is also forbidden, and in summer most pods will have juveniles.
The darkly Gothic harbourside city of Dunedin is the largest city in the southern half of the South Island, its population of around 120,000 bolstered by 25,000 students from the University of Otago – New Zealand’s oldest tertiary institution – who contribute to a strong arts scene, as well as vibrant nightlife, during term time at least.
The university aside, the city hasn’t had a lot of investment in recent decades and while some sections can feel a bit shabby it does mean that classic buildings remain unaffected by recent architectural meddling, giving a harmonious uniformity.
Although Dunedin spreads beyond the suburb-strung hills and surf beaches, the city has a compact and manageable heart, centred on The Octagon. This manicured, tree-lined green space is bordered by the art gallery, the Neoclassical Municipal Chambers and the schizophrenic St Paul’s Cathedral. Further afield, the newly revamped Otago Settlers Museum is sure to impress, while the Chinese Gardens offer contemplative calm. It is worth a look in the nearby Dunedin Railway Station even if you’re not making a journey on the time-warped Taieri Gorge Railway.
Beer and chocolate are always winners, best experienced on the Cadbury World tour and Speight’s Brewery Tour. Towards the north of the central city, Olveston gives a taste of Dunedin life from its heyday, a topic treated more formally in the Otago Museum. The Botanic Garden climbs up to the memorial on Signal Hill where you can look down on Otago Harbour, a sheltered inlet 22km long and no wider than a river in places. The harbour is protected from the ocean by the wonderful Otago Peninsula.
Local buses get you quickly to Baldwin Street, the world’s steepest, and to the sandy beaches of St Clair and St Kilda, the former with a classy hotel and cluster of cafés.
From around 1100 AD, Maori fished the rich coastal waters of nearby bays, travelling inland in search of moa, ducks and freshwater fish, and trading with other iwi further north. Eventually they formed a settlement around the harbour, calling it Otakou (pronounced “O-tar-go”) and naming the headland at the harbour’s entrance after their great chieftain, Taiaroa – today a marae occupies the Otakou site. By the 1820s European whalers and sealers were seeking shelter in what was the only safe anchorage along this stretch of coast, unwittingly introducing foreign diseases. The local Maori population was decimated, dropping to a low of 110, but subsequent intermarriage bolstered numbers.
The Scots arrive
The New Zealand Company selected the Otago Harbour for a planned Scottish settlement as early as 1840 and purchased land from local Maori, but it wasn’t until 1848 that the first migrant ships arrived, led by Captain William Cargill and the Reverend Thomas Burns, nephew of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. With the arrival of English and Irish settlers the following year, the Scots were soon in the minority, but their national fervour still stamped its distinct character on the town.
The prospectors arrive
In 1861, a lone Australian prospector discovered gold at a creek near present-day Lawrence, about 100km west of Dunedin. Within three months, diggers were pouring in from Australia, and as the main port of entry Dunedin found itself in the midst of a gold rush. The port was expanded, and the population doubled in six months, trebled in three years and made the city New Zealand’s most important. This new-found wealth spurred a building boom that resulted in much of the city’s most iconic architecture, including the university.
By the 1870s gold mania had largely subsided, but the area sustained its economic primacy through shipping, railway development and farming. Decline began during the early twentieth century, when the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 made Auckland a more economic port for British shipping. In the 1980s, the improvement in world gold prices and the development of equipment enabling large-scale recovery of gold from low-yielding soils re-established mining in the hinterland. Today you can visit the massive operation at Macraes, an hour’s drive from Dunedin.
Dunedin’s dramatic railway station marks the start of two wonderfully scenic train trips, both run by the Taieri Gorge Railway (03 477 4449, taieri.co.nz). One threads inland through the Taieri Gorge itself while the other winds along a spectacular coastal route north to Palmerston.
The Taieri Gorge journey stretches 77km northwest from Dunedin through rugged hill country. Constructed between 1879 and 1921, the line once carried supplies a total of 235km from Dunedin to the old gold town of Cromwell, returning with farm produce, fruit and livestock bound for the port. Commercial traffic stopped in 1990, and much of the route was turned into the Otago Central Rail Trail, but the most dramatic section – through the schist strata of the Taieri Gorge – continues to offer a rewarding journey at any time of year.
Most trains run as far as Pukerangi (58km from Dunedin), a lonely wayside halt near the highest point of the track (250m) where you wait a few minutes then head back. Some services continue a further 19km to the old gold town of Middlemarch.
The air-conditioned train is made up of a mix of modern steel carriages with large panoramic windows and nostalgic, refurbished 1920s wooden cars. Storage is available for backpacks and bicycles, and there’s a licensed snack bar on board.
Taieri Gorge and rail trail combos
As well as the day-trips, the Taieri Gorge trip makes an excellent way to start your journey inland towards Wanaka and Queenstown. Buses meet the train at Pukerangi or Middlemarch and head through the Maniototo to Queenstown: book through the Taieri Gorge Railway.
Cyclists can take the train (bikes go free, though they need to be booked) then hop straight onto the Otago Central Rail Trail.
A completely different but equally picturesque rail journey, the Seasider, leaves Dunedin Railway Station and runs along the main northbound line 66km up the coast to Palmerston. It initially follows the flank of Otago Harbour then winds through Port Chalmers to Blueskin Bay with tunnels, bridges and great coastal views all the way. The train ($86 return; $57 one-way; 4hr return) runs sporadic days throughout the year (check the website for times) and stops for 30min for coffee in Palmerston.
There’s no surer way to get a real taste of Dunedin in party mode than to attend a rugby match at the new 30,000-seater Forsyth Barr Stadium (wforsythbarrstadium.co.nz) at 130 Anzac Avenue, 2km east of The Octagon. The city is proud of having the world’s only fully roofed, natural-turf stadium, but its $200 million construction (in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup) was controversial and put huge strains on the local ratepayers. Highlanders Super 15 games are held every second weekend during the season (late Feb–July) and there are occasional All Black Games (generally May–Oct). For free schedules and ticket sales visit The Champions of the World shop, 8 George St (Mon–Fri 9am–5.30pm, Sat & Sun 10am–4pm; t 03 477 7852).
The quiet Southland farming town of GORE, 70km west of Balclutha and 70km northeast of Invercargill, is a pleasant transit point at the intersection of routes from Dunedin to Te Anau and Invercargill. Dominated by the Hokonui Hills, Gore spans the Mataura River (“reddish swirling water”), and claims to be the brown trout capital of the world – celebrated by an enormous fish statue in the town centre. It also claims to be New Zealand’s home of country music (not that anyone is fighting them for the honour), a scene that is most accessible during Gold Guitar Week (late May and early June; t 03 208 1978, w goldguitars.co.nz) when hundreds of would-be country stars and a few established performers roll into town for five days of low-key entertainment.
Many visitors pass straight through INVERCARGILL, regarding it as little more than a waystation en route to Stewart Island or the Catlins Coast. But the city warrants a little more time. Settled in the mid-1850s, it sprawls over an exposed stretch of flat land at the head of the New River Estuary. In 2000, community contributions allowed its main centre of learning, the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT), to offer free tuition for New Zealand and Australian residents (with lower than usual fees for international students) on all of its courses. As a result, Invercargill’s population swelled to 50,000, and its arts scene and nightlife gained new life. More recently, the discovery of a possible oil source nearby has led to some new investment in the town, and the prospect of more to come.
To the south, at the tip of a small peninsula, lies Bluff, the departure point for ferries to Stewart Island.
Few New Zealanders, let alone anyone in the rest of the world, knew about Burt Munro (1899–1978) until Roger Donaldson’s The World’s Fastest Indian hit movie screens in 2005. All of a sudden everyone had heard of this eccentric Invercargill mechanic who, in 1967, aged 68, set the under-1000cc speed record of 295kph (183mph) on a 1920 Indian Scout bike. He had spent years modifying the bike and testing it at Oreti Beach.
His stock has been rising around Invercargill ever since the movie’s release, with a display in the museum, a statue outside Queens Park, the original bike in E. Hayes and Sons Ltd shop, and the annual Burt Munro Challenge, four days of speedway and street racing, a hill climb and, of course, beach racing each November.
The 35km-long crooked finger of the OTAGO PENINSULA, running northeast from Dunedin, divides Otago Harbour from the Pacific Ocean. With sweeping views of the harbour, the sea and Dunedin against its dramatic backdrop of hills, the peninsula offers outstanding year-round marine wildlife viewing that’s probably the most condensed and varied in the country.
The prime wildlife viewing spots are concentrated at the peninsula’s tip, Taiaroa Head (less than an hour’s drive from Dunedin), where cold waters forced up by the continental shelf provide a rich and constant food source. The majestic royal albatross breeds here in what is the world’s only mainland albatross colony. Also concentrated on the headland’s shores are penguins (the little blue and the rare yellow-eyed) and southern fur seals, while the cliffs are home to other seabirds including three species of shag, muttonbirds (sooty shearwaters) and various species of gull. New Zealand sea lions sometimes loll on beaches, while offshore, orca and whales can be seen. Other than taking one of the excellent wildlife tours, the best opportunities for seeing animals are on some of the beaches. Sandfly Bay welcomes yellow-eyed penguins home in the late afternoon, then Pilots Beach sees the arrival of blue penguins around dusk.
Around the head of Otago Harbour, Portobello Road shakes off Dunedin’s southern suburbs and begins to weave its way along the peninsula’s shoreline past little bays, many dotted with stilt-mounted boathouses. Beyond the accommodation and eating nexus of Portobello, Harington Point Road continues to Taiaroa Head.
Apart from wildlife spotting there’s appeal in the beautiful woodland gardens of Glenfalloch, the excellent Marine Studies Centre & Aquarium, the exemplary grounds of Larnach Castle and several scenic walks to spectacular views and unusual land formations created by lava flows.
At Company Bay, Castlewood Road runs 4km inland to the 1871 Gothic Revival Larnach Castle, which sits high on a hill commanding great views across the harbour to Dunedin. More château than fort, this sumptuous residence was designed by Robert A. Lawson for Australian-born banker, politician and importer William Larnach. Materials were shipped from all over the world then punted across the harbour and dragged uphill by ox-drawn sleds. Its outer shell took three years to complete, with the ornate interior taking another nine.
After years of neglect the castle was rescued by the Barker family in the late 1960s and has since been progressively restored while remaining their home. Check out the concealed spiral staircase in the corner of the third floor, which leads up to a terraced turret.
The castle’s magnificent manicured grounds, divided into nine gardens, are of national significance and quite beautiful; keep an eye out for the handful of Alice in Wonderland statues, such as one of the Cheshire cat hiding in an ancient Atlas cedar tree.
You can refresh yourself at the café in the former ballroom, or stay overnight.
When observing wildlife, respect the animals by staying well away from them (at least 10m), and keeping quiet and still. Penguins are especially frightened by people and they may be reluctant to come ashore (even if they have chicks to feed) if you are on or near the beach and visible. In summer, keep to the track as they’re extremely vulnerable to stress while nesting and moulting. Never get between a seal or sea lion and the sea; these animals can be aggressive and move quickly.
The majestic albatross, one of the world’s largest seabirds, has long been the subject of reverence and superstition: the embodiment of a dead sea captain’s soul, condemned to drift the oceans forever. A solitary creature, the albatross spends most of its life on the wing or at sea.
Second only in size to the wandering albatross, the graceful royal albatross has a wingspan of up to 3m. They can travel 190,000km a year at speeds of 120kph, and have a life expectancy of 45 years. The albatross mates for life, but male and female separate to fly in opposite directions around the world, returning to the same breeding grounds once every two years, and arriving within a couple of days of one another. The female lays one egg (weighing up to 500g) per breeding season, and the parents both incubate it over a period of eleven weeks.
Once the chick has hatched, the parents take turns feeding it and guarding it against stoats, ferrets, wild cats and rats. Almost a year from the start of the breeding cycle, the fledgling takes flight and the parents leave the colony and return to sea only to start the cycle again a year later.
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.
Container cranes loom over the small, quirky town of PORT CHALMERS, 12km northeast of Dunedin and reached along the winding western shore of Otago Harbour. Arranged on hills around a container port and cruise-ship berth, the town has a vibrant artistic community, headed by celebrated New Zealand painter and sculptor Ralph Hotere. The whole place has a delightfully run-down, lost-in-time feel, though a modest amount of renovation of many of the fine nineteenth-century buildings along George Street, the main drag, has left a framework for a few cool shops and cafés. Two late Victorian churches vie for attention with the cranes: the elegant stone-spired Presbyterian Iona Church on Mount Street, and the nuggety bluestone Anglican Holy Trinity, on Scotia Street, designed by Robert A. Lawson.
For a little exercise tackle Back Beach Walk (4km loop; 1hr; mostly flat) with views across to Goat Island and Quarantine Island in the harbour with the Otago Peninsula beyond: pick up a map from the library.
Chosen in 1844 as the port to serve the proposed Scottish settlement that would become Dunedin, Port Chalmers became the embarkation point for several Antarctic expeditions, including those of Captain Scott, who set out from here in 1901 and again for his ill-fated attempt on the Pole in 1910. The first trial shipment of frozen meat to Britain was sent from Port Chalmers in 1882 and today the export of wool, meat and timber, and reception of cruise ships is its chief business.
Modelled on the Zealandia: the Karori Sanctuary Experience attraction in Wellington, the Orokonui Ecosanctuary is a welcome addition to the pantheon of wildlife activities within easy reach of Dunedin. Start at the visitor centre, all eco-designed using secondhand shipping containers and wood milled on-site. Solar panels heat roof rainwater for washing, and centre waste is treated and used for irrigation. The place is packed with information and the café offers wonderful views of the valley, but the real treats are just the other side of the 8.7km predator-exclusion fence, protecting three square kilometres of regenerating bush, some of it over a century old, containing reintroduced native birds, tuatara and skinks. Among the birds you are likely to encounter are tomtit, South Island riflemen, grey warbler, brown creeper, saddleback, bellbird, tui, fantail and kaka.
You can take a self-guided walk through the sanctuary, but will learn (and probably see) more on a guided tour with the freedom to roam afterwards. Either drive here (30min from Dunedin) or come on a wildlife tour (see Dunedin and Otago Peninsula nature tours). No public buses visit.
Foveaux Strait separates the South Island from New Zealand’s third main island, STEWART ISLAND, a genuinely special place of rare birds, bountiful seas and straight-talking people.
Most of Stewart Island is uninhabited and characterized by bush-fringed bays, sandy coves, windswept beaches and a rugged interior of tall rimu forest and granite outcrops. It is known in Maori as Rakiura (“The Land of Glowing Skies”), although the jury is still out on whether this refers to the aurora australis – a.k.a. southern lights – occasionally seen in the night sky throughout the year, or the fabulous sunsets. With the creation of Rakiura National Park in 2002 a full 85 percent of the island is now protected.
Almost the entire population of 400 lives in the sole town, Oban, where boats dock, planes land and the parrot-shriek of kaka provides the soundtrack. There’s not much to do in town, but the slow island ways can quickly get into your blood and you may well want to stay longer than you had planned, especially if you’re drawn to serious wilderness tramping, abundant wildlife in unspoilt surroundings and sea kayaking around the flooded valley of Paterson Inlet.
Maori had been here for centuries before Captain Cook came by in 1770 and erroneously marked Rakiura as a peninsula on his charts. The island was later named after William Stewart, the first officer on a sealing vessel that visited in 1809. With the arrival of Europeans, felling rimu became the island’s economic mainstay, supporting three thousand people in the 1930s. Now almost all of Stewart Island’s residents live from conservation work, fishing (crayfish, blue cod and paua), fish farming (salmon and mussels) and tourism.
Stewart Island has become synonymous with kiwi spotting in the wild, something that is difficult to do on mainland New Zealand. Tours from Oban include kiwi spotting, but most people are keen to get to Mason Bay, on the west coast, where they stay overnight in the DOC hut and head out after dark in the hope of finding these elusive creatures. You’ll almost certainly hear them, and have a fair chance of seeing them provided you don’t go crashing about in the bush: just pick a spot and wait. Take a torch, but keep the beam pointed to the ground to avoid disturbing the birds.
For hardy visitors, the cheapest way to visit is to walk (38km one-way; 13–15hr) along the southern leg of the North West Circuit, probably staying overnight at Freshwater Hut. You can save a lot of time by catching a water taxi from Oban to Freshwater Landing Hut (40min) then walking to Mason Bay (15km; 3–4hr; flat but often flooded – check conditions before you head out).
Stewart Island Flights offer a “Coast to Coast” loop, flying from Oban to the beach at Mason Bay (not at high tide), staying a night or two there, walking to Freshwater Landing, then getting a water taxi back to Oban (or vice versa).
The birdlife in Oban is pretty special, but it pales next to that on the 2km-long, low Ulva Island – an open wildlife sanctuary that’s been cleared of introduced predators through sustained local effort. On a series of easy walks to secluded beaches you’ll see more native birdlife than almost anywhere else in New Zealand. The place is full of birdsong, its dense temperate rainforest alive with endangered saddleback, bellbirds, kaka, yellow- and red-crowned parakeets, tui, fantails, pigeons and robins, who approach visitors with fearless curiosity.
Everyone lands at Post Office Bay, whose former post office, over 100 years old, is a remnant from the days when Ulva Island was the hub of the Paterson Inlet logging community. Armed with DOC’s Ulva Island: Te Wharawhara booklet ($2), you can find your own way along trails, though naturalist guidance on one of the tours means you’ll spot a lot more. There’s a pleasant picnic shelter beside the sand beach at Sydney Cove.