DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND — Our host Philip was very keen that we see yellow-eyed penguins, and before we left, he made sure we knew where to find them.
Our St. Clair Airbnb with Philip and Pauline probably was as good as it gets. They obviously didn’t need the money, so they must like meeting people, and we tried to be as interesting as we could when we got the chance to chat with both of them.
For our part, we were intrigued by Philip’s account of taking Maori-language classes. We hear there’s still racism in New Zealand, so we thought it was pretty cool that this elderly Scot is learning Maori. The language has only 10 consonants, and most of the words sound alike, so that’s no mean feat.
Our next plan was to visit downtown Dunedin, which we could see in the distance, surrounded by hills. The town was settled by members of the Free Church of Scotland, who arrived in 1848 and soon were overwhelmed, then enriched, by the Otago gold rush.
They used their wealth to build all kinds of Gothic stone buildings that would look just at home in Edinburgh, for which Dunedin is named (it’s the Gaelic version).
We started our walking tour at the ornate 1904 railway station, now home only to excursion trains, an art gallery, the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame and, on Saturdays, a farmers market. It was as fun to look at the people as the foodstuffs; the Scottish genes are obvious in the freckled, apple-cheeked, strawberry-blonde people who populate this South Pacific island.
We walked by the miniature Gothic First Church of Otago, the fanciest Presbyterian church we’ve ever seen and not even the town’s main Gothic cathedral. That’s the Anglican St. Paul’s on the Octagon, or town plaza, which is next to the baroque town hall and across from the statue of beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns.
Dunedin actually has a solid connection to Burns, unlike Minneapolis to Longfellow. The Scottish poet was the uncle of the Rev. Thomas Burns, the co-founder and religious leader of Dunedin during its early years.
We walked by the massive downtown Cadbury factory, which offers tours. We were eating Cadbury bars our first few weeks, but now we’re eating Whittaker’s, made in New Zealand since 1896; we especially like the artisan bar made with Nelson pears and honey from the New Zealand manuka tree.
On our way out of downtown, we stopped at the New World Market, where a giant inflatable rat sat outside the doors. Turns out the owner of that market pays even his supervisors only a couple of bucks more than the $15.25 national minimum wage. It wasn’t a picket line, but we decided to forgo shopping there and headed north.
Our destination was the Katiki Point Lighthouse, or, more specifically, the yellow-eyed penguin hide next to it. The wooden blind with windows was at the bottom of a steep hill, and we scanned the nearby rocks, but it was too early in the day, and we didn’t see any. We did see lots of fur seals on the neighboring rocks.
Just up the coast, we stopped to see the famous Moeraki Boulders, spherical concretions that have tumbled out of cliffside puddingstone and onto the beach. But we got sidetracked by cappuccino and cake in the clifftop cafe and just gave them a glance; anyway, greedy tourists have culled the herd by carrying off all of the smaller boulders.
As usual, our day was draining away too fast, and we wanted to stop by Oamaru. It’s famous for its colony of little blue penguins, its Victorian buildings made of local stone and, Beth remembered when she saw a sign outside town, for being the steampunk capital of the world.
What is steampunk? It’s a whimsical aesthetic that meshes science fiction and steam-powered technology with a futuristic fantasy of 19th-century England. It’s found all over the world, but it looks especially fabulous amid the slightly sooty stone buildings of a Victorian industrial port like Oamaru.
At Steampunk HQ, you can get a rusty locomotive ridden by gargoyles to rear up and shoot fire by inserting a $2 coin, and a Chinese photographer was doing just that to get an image of a bride in red silk. The HQ is a massive stone building that “preserves many curious contraptions and secrets, trinkets and curios, artifacts, fantastic engines, creatures and visual transmissions from other realms,” and it was one tourist trap that Beth would have loved to get into, but it was almost closing time.
Around the corner, limestone warehouses adorned with curlicues and colonnades were full of interesting little shops, and a distillery occupied a giant warehouse at the end of the street. The liveliest place in town was Scotts Brewery, where a party was underway: Local athlete Dougal Allan had just broken the course record at the Challenge Wanaka triathlon by nearly nine minutes.
More children were running around a steampunk playground near the harbor, where a giant penny-farthing high-wheel bicycle enveloped the swings. By now, Beth was in love with Oamaru and dying to return to see the splendid teapot-racing and costumes at the Steampunk Festival in June.
It turns out Oamaru has something in common with the home-grown outsider-art sculpture environments Beth loves so much in the Wisconsin countryside. After entrepreneur Iain Clark mounted a steampunk exhibition, writes the Guardian, local “farmers went home and started tinkering in their sheds, creating (their own) steampunk inventions.” Now, they’re all over town.
We took a quick peek at the blue-penguin headquarters at the end of the harbor, which had just closed, then hit the road: We’d promised we’d be at our cottage in Twizel by 7 p.m.
We headed inland toward Mount Cook National Park, a late addition to our itinerary, bitching about how we should have scheduled an extra day for Dunedin, Oamaru and the Otago coast. For the first time, we envied people in self-contained campervans who could “freedom camp” and set their own schedule.
The highway was one of the few flat stretches in New Zealand, and we could see the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps rising in the distance. Suddenly, Torsten forgot all about the Otago coast.
But we had to stop short in Twizel, where our cottage was on the edge of town, nice enough but with no view of mountains or anything else. For dinner, we fried up lamb sausages with fennel and white wine and ate them with sweet corn and mushroom rice with broccoli. Tomorrow: more of the snow-capped mountains.