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January 13-15, 2006 Dunedin and the Otago Penninsula
Dunedin, a small settlement in the mid-nineteenth century, boomed when gold was discovered in a nearby valley in the 1860's. Today, with 135,000 residents, it is far from the rough place it was during the Gold Rush and is famous in New Zealand for its Victorian architecture, University, Botanic Gardens and museums.
We caught glimpses of all this as we pedaled through the city streets. The old train station is a massive building built of various colors of local stone, from a light cream limestone to a black basalt. We stopped there to ask for directions to the Otago Penninsula and spoke with a proud restaurant owner who told us the city had spent 6 million dollars to renovate the building. He gestured to another Victorian building across the street. "That's the old jail. It'll be empty soon and I want to buy it to turn it into a hotel." We wished him luck and headed on our way.
The road out the peninsula was narrow, windy and right on the edge of the bay. In one place boards were shoring up the pavement and everywhere bits of dried seaweed littered the waterside edge where we were pedaling. It was about as close as I want to come to bicycling in the ocean. With almost no flat spaces on the rugged peninsula the road builders carved this road out of the cliffs and built it up from the shoreline.
We stopped again at MacAndrews Bay, about five miles out the peninsula, to call our hosts for directions. At the small town beach families played in the water and a New Zealand sea lion basked in the sand. We thought perhaps it was dead until it waved a flipper and poured more sand on its back. No one seemed to think it odd that humans and a sea lion were sharing a small arc of sand.
Our hosts-Neville Peat and Mary Hammonds and their fourteen-year-old daughter Sophie-live in Broad Bay in a house that looks out to Port Chalmbers on the other side of the harbor, the port where huge container ships and cruise ships weigh anchor. They showed us to our rooms upstairs-two bedrooms and our own bathroom-a wonderful luxury for us. After we settled in we shared conversation and tea--a delicious spinach tart, fresh green beans and a banana cake that Sophie had made.
We all belong to an organization called Servas, Esperanto for "to serve", a peace organization started in Europe after WWII. Servas today connects travelers to hosts with the idea that increased cultural understanding among the people of the world will help avoid future global conflict. The "rules" are simple-volunteer hosts welcome travelers for a two-night minimum stay in their home. Travelers share in household chores and go exploring in the area, with or without their hosts. Each country has a host booklet with brief descriptions of each host family, arranged by the regions of the country where they live. All we knew at first was that Neville was a writer and Mary was a midwife and they had traveled widely around the world.
By the end of the evening-after talking, looking at photos, playing a board game and singing folk songs together-we were friends. Neville has written over twenty books, mostly about the natural history of New Zealand. Mary works in the Dunedin hospital and worked in Papua New Guinea as a midwife volunteer. Sophie has a beautiful voice and was in her first school musical this year.
In the morning we took the bus into the city. The first stop was a bike store to have the spokes on my rear wheel trued so the wheel spun evenly. Next we found a big grocery store to buy food for lunch. What a treat to find pre-packaged sushi, pesto focaccia bread and fresh salad greens! The little dairies we've been stopping at are the equivalent of our mini-marts and it is difficult to find fresh fruit or vegetables, let alone "ethnic" food.
Neville had told us about the university bookstore, across the street from the Central Otago Museum. Tom and Jay spent a happy hour browsing there while I walked through the university to the Botanical Gardens and admired the plants from southern Africa, the rhododendron section and the native trees.
When I returned I passed a used bookstore and Tom and Jay agreed we might actually be able to afford something there. It was a pleasant jumble of books and I found gift books for Neville and Mary as well as a couple of paperbacks for Jay. Tom found an English book called Help Your Child with Maths. (Jay is worried that he will get behind in Math. We're not, but we're learning how to teach math to an eleven-year-old). All of our books cost less than one book would have in the new books store.
We still had time for the museum and wandered through exhibits about Moa birds, with an impressive display of skeletons, and a large area about the Maori. Tom found a room filled with an entire Right Whale skeleton, including the baleen. Whaling was the first industry here in Dunedin.
When Mary finished work at the hospital she met us to give us a ride out to Broad Bay. First we stopped at three ATM machines to try to use our debit card to get cash. For some reason our card didn't work until we tried the Westpac bank, even though it looked as if all the machines took our brand of money. It was a relief to finally see the bills slide out of the machine. Many of the small stores and motor camps only take cash.
After tea, Neville and Mary took us for a drive around the peninsula, showing us shore birds (oyster catchers, black swans, cormorants and herons), an old lime kiln and at the tip of the peninsula, two species of albatross. The size of the birds amazed me; they seemed as large as small airplanes as they floated past on the strong winds.
At dusk we waited with a small crowd of tourists hoping to see Little Blue penguins emerge from the sea and waddle across the beach to return to their chicks hidden in burrows in the rough grass. (Next to the waiting area, four seals slept in the grass, unconcerned that humans practically stepped over them. None of us got too close, however, as the seals had an incredible rotting fish stench to them). We waited quietly, as the volunteer had told us to, behind a fence. Little Blues are the smallest penguins in the world and when they did finally arrive, a group of about twenty, I saw how they would be one gulp for a shark or a sea lion. The first group burst out of the water and milled around, like a group of commuters getting off a train, before they waddled up the runway between the fences, a tiny cluster of celebrities surrounded by admirers. As instructed, no one used a flash camera and we quietly walked back up the hill to the cars, waiting as one small group of penguins broke off, waddled up our trail, and headed for their nests. I found it thrilling, though Neville and Mary have seen penguins many times and were patiently waiting for us back in the car.
The next morning Mary headed off to work early and Neville and Sophie continued with painting Sophie's room. We packed a lunch and walked up the track in the village that followed a dirt road and then a trail along a fence line up to New Zealand's only castle. Most tourists were driving to Larnach Castle and we felt lucky to have it on our own backyard, so to speak, though it was a stiff climb to get there.
It was also a stiff admission fee, as Mary had warned us. The castle, built in the nineteenth century by a wealthy Dunedin family as their summer camp (shades of the Adirondacks) had fallen into disrepair until a family bought the place about twenty years ago. The admission fee helps with "continuing renovations", the sign said and of course the entry gate was positioned so we couldn't catch a glimpse of the castle until we paid and walked in.
Imagine an English country estate, with several formal gardens of severely clipped hedges and many varieties of roses. Add in the jungle-y native vegetation of New Zealand and a hilltop location looking down on a long harbor and islands, with pastures of sheep in the foreground. It was worth the admission fee.
We ate our lunch under a stained glass cupola, a place far too elegant for cheese and crackers. After meandering around the gardens and taking the self-guided native plants tour, we sat in the ballroom café to share a small plate of mini cream puffs. Jay thought he'd like to live in a castle when he grew up and I said I used to think that too but imagine the cleaning and upkeep. For now, a tent is just fine.
We took the long way back to Broad Bay, walking along a narrow road at the top of the peninsula, with views out in both directions. The hilly pastures had the usual dots of sheep and deep in a hollow we saw the chimney of an abandoned farmhouse, with no obvious road to get to it.
Back in Broad Bay it was our turn to make tea. Jay and I made chocolate chip oatmeal cookies and Tom rolled out his sourdough for pizza. In the garden, I picked lettuce and green beans, marveling again at this harvesting in January. We all enjoyed the meal and sat talking and then singing. Neville is an accomplished guitarist and knew many of the songs we did, including a few John Denver standbys. We all joined in to sing all the verses of Waltzing Matilda, the un-official Australian national anthem. The Kiwis explained the meaning of several of the slang words I'd always thought were just pure nonsense syllables.
In the morning we packed our bikes and said goodbye, leaving as a gift two North American books we wanted to share-- a used copy of Farmer Boy by Laura Ingels Wilder and No Great Mischief by Alistair McLeod, a Scottish-Canadian writer we admire. We hope Neville, Mary and Sophie will want to visit our part of the world, and maybe the books will help get them to the North Country sooner.
2006 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475