The Blue and the Gold
Like a fingerprint on the land, close-spaced sheep tracks pattern the hillsides of the Otago Peninsula. Although the peninsula lies on the threshold of a major city and has a long history of human modification, it remains wild and remote in character, a place where weather and sea hold sway.
Outside, the air was cold, the drizzle persistent. Inside, the car was warm and the book of local history on my lap agreeably stodgy. I settled comfortably lower in the seat to read on, drowsiness tugging at my eyelids.
A brisk tapping at the driver’s window roused me. “You OK? I drove past 15 minutes ago and saw you, and now you look like you’ve slumped even lower. You haven’t had a heart attack or anything?” I reassured and thanked my would-be saviour. In Auckland if someone thought I’d had a heart attack, the car’s wheels would have been gone by now. A new thought struck me. “Are you a local?”
Uncertainty clouded his face. “I’m a cribbie,” he explained. “My family have had a crib down near the heads for 60 years.” I could see the problem. Sixty years as a cribbie probably didn’t make you a local. But when you’re keen to chat to the locals and one comes knocking on your door, you don’t split hairs. “Hop in out of the cold,” I said.
Graeme Burns’ family bought their section in 1938. “Aunt Alice—her name was Miss Karetai, but everyone called her Aunt Alice—was the boss down here then, and she paced off the section for Mum and Dad directly.”
Like much of the land at Otakou and out to the heads, the Burns’ property is leasehold Maori land. “Originally, our annual rental was 25 shillings, paid to Aunt Alice, and no rates,” Burns told me. “But now the lease is $250, with $450 in rates as well. We get a 20-year lease with a 20-year right of renewal. Many owners have been assured of further renewals, although there was a case recently where a lease was not renewed and the cribbie lost everything. The owners of that land came from up north. But for the most part relations between the local Maori and the 200 or so cribbies are pretty good.”
A crib is southern lingo for a bach, and most of the buildings on the 21-kilometre-long Otago Peninsula were once either cribs or farmhouses. As roads improved, many of the cribs gave way to houses, and those parts of the peninsula closer to Dunedin have become suburbs of the city. Waverly, Vauxhall, Shiel Hill, and Andersons Bay, at the base of the peninsula, are now close-packed houses. Further out, Macandrew Bay is definitely suburban, and Broad Bay largely so. Portobello, two-thirds of the way along, is a transitional area, but the farther reaches still host mainly crib-type abodes.
Don’t get the idea that the peninsula is coast-to-coast houses, however. This is no Whangaparaoa of the south. Most of the area’s residents live in a narrow strip beside the finger-like Otago Harbour, with only a smattering over the bulk of the rugged knuckle of land that flanks the harbour. At heart, the peninsula is wild. Steep hills up to 400 m high—created by volcanoes 12 million years ago—form its backbone, and wonderful white-sand surf beaches, sheer cliffs and scything winds dominate its southern and eastern flanks. On the harbour side the landscapes are tamer, but there are still extensive cliffs at the city end. Beyond Portobello, the coastline mellows, and sandflats and beaches replace rocky bluffs.
Man has grappled fiercely with nature over every inch of the Otago Peninsula, and today’s landscape bears little resemblance to the pre-European terrain. The dense coastal forest that once clothed the hills has almost everywhere given way to bare pasture, and if the district can still be said to have a signature tree, it is the macrocarpa. Thousands of this salt- and wind-tolerant species were planted for shelter, and a good number of centenarians are still standing.
In recent years a new consciousness of the nakedness of the land has arisen, and pockets of pines, cypresses and eucalypts have been planted, but still the land remains unusually bare. Broom, and especially gorse, form swathes of brilliant yellow on too many hillsides. Even to a part-time farmer like me, who has spent too many years fighting the accursed stuff, there is a certain beauty in its blooms. Nowhere have I seen it flower with such vigour and vividness. Some bushes are almost solid AA yellow with barely a glimpse of green.
At the end of a gravel road near Sandfly Bay I came upon Stuart Robertson cutting up a fallen macrocarpa for firewood. “The early settlers did a thorough job here, getting rid of just about every tree,” he told me wryly when I stopped to talk to him. “Now it’s mighty hard to reestablish anything. Soil fertility isn’t bad, but the wind is fierce and summers can get very dry.”
Even though it was a fine spring afternoon, there was a cool wind blowing in from the ocean. “See that pole on the ridge up there? It’s part of a wind turbine, but the bearings wore out after only a few months. Another windmill near here self-destructed pretty quickly, too.”
Despite the harsh climate and the isolation, Robertson, who has farmed here for 22 years, prefers the seaward side of the peninsula to the more populous harbour side. Ironically, he can survive on his 70 ha property only because his wife works as a lawyer in town. Most of the peninsula’s farmers get some off-farm income.
Ian and Pat Robertson, who have farmed 120 ha below Highcliff Rd since 1963, have also had to struggle to make a living. For the first 12 years they were dairying, but got sick of the drudgery. “We’d see everyone else coming home at five o’clock, and we still had another three hours of work to do,” Ian told me. When they gave up milking in 1975 there were only six dairy farms left on the peninsula—three town supply and three providing milk to the Cadbury chocolate factory in Dunedin.
The Robertsons switched to coloured sheep, and at one stage they had 1200, one of the largest flocks in the country. From a shed which originally housed an oat-threshing plant they now sell a range of coloured-wool products—sheepskins, raw fleece, carded wool, spun wool and an assortment of garments. To start with, the venture was a gamble. Pat told the children, “If this yarn doesn’t sell, you will be wearing hand-knitted stuff for the rest of your lives.” Fortunately for the kids, it sold. The Robertsons now pay a coterie of hand knitters to produce elaborate jerseys and other garments such as scarves and hats, and tourists pay good money for them. Still, without superannuation they could not survive, they said. They consider further subdivision of the farmland on the peninsula to be inevitable, and wonder which of their grown children will want to put in the effort of working the land.
At Cape Saunders, the peninsula’s eastern extremity, I met Brian Clearwater, a bachelor farmer who has lived in these parts for most of his 67 years. Relatives farm nearby Mt Charles (the peninsula’s highest hill) and other blocks in the district. A Clearwater was among the first Europeans—whalers—to settle on the peninsula, arriving here in the 1830s.
Sitting in his pleasant lounge overlooking the lagoon-like Papanui Inlet, we chewed the fat about farming on the peninsula today. “I reckon there are 10 or 12 economic farms out here still, but it’s not easy country,” he said. Cattle make up most of Clearwater’s stock, probably because the contours out towards the Cape are gentler than over much of the peninsula.
When I commented on the lack of shelter, Brian told me that he put in pines, “but the salt burned them off. I should have planted flax! We had a terrible wind out there recently. It actually burned the grass and you could see the cattle losing condition. Things are coming right now, though.” With a low dollar and consequently high cattle prices, he’s expecting a good year.
Like the Robertsons, he’s concerned about the future of farming on the peninsula—and elsewhere. “Some of the banks have been down on farming for years. A few weeks ago I wanted to borrow $30,000 from the bank for some cattle. I’ve been with this particular bank forever. `No, I’m sorry, Mr Clearwater, we couldn’t possibly do that.’ Well, stuff them. A stock and station company rang me up a day later and offered me the $30,000, and more if I wanted it. Without farming, New Zealand is dead, but a lot of people don’t realise it.”
Jock Dick, a retired sheep farmer living in Portobello, comes from an old peninsula family and has a keen interest in the history of the district. He took me through the busy rooms of the little Portobello Museum, which he helps run. “In the early days the roads didn’t come far out on the peninsula, and Port Chalmers across the harbour was our main centre. The railway was there, and boats ran across the harbour. With the coming of refrigeration, little dairy farms and small factories sprang up all around the outer part of the peninsula. The factories had to be within horse and cart distance of the farms. Bigger families milked more cows—hands to milk was the main limitation on cow numbers—but even so most farms had only 20 or 30 cows. On winter nights the cows were kept inside and fed turnips and hay. It was a big job.”
Hardwicke Knight probably has a better knowledge of peninsula history than anyone has. In 1978, he published what is still the most thorough book on the area’s history, called simply Otago Peninsula. He has spent 45 of his 90 years living in one house at Broad Bay, which, since the death of his wife a couple of years ago, he shares with an old black dog. “I decided that we would live here on the peninsula before we ever left England,” he told me. “I chose it from an ordnance map.”
Maps and surveys interest Knight. “I produced the only accurate map of Pitcairn Island ever made,” he said. “It has 400 place names in three languages—astonishing for an island only two miles by one mile.” He also paints watercolours, but history has been his ruling passion. In his younger days he tramped all over the peninsula, examining every historic site. Although physically too fragile for this work now, his mind remains acute—nourished by a vast collection of books. Indeed, in his lounge there was scarcely room for the two of us to sit down. I perched on the corner of a sofa stacked with weighty books, and Knight squeezed into an old easy chair facing the ashes in the fireplace. A black beret covered most of his grey hair and accentuated his bristly and disordered eyebrows. The room was dim and smelt of woodsmoke. Bookshelves extended right to the high ceiling. I realised with a pang that Knight could now never retrieve books from the upper levels. They were beyond his physical reach.
Maori history has engaged Knight’s interest as much as European, and our impromptu history lesson ranged widely over centuries and cultures. “The peak of Polynesian occupation of the peninsula was probably the 15th century,” he told me in a quiet, slightly patrician voice. “Moa were an important part of their diet. Thousands of moa bones have been found on some of the flats. Fish, shellfish, seabirds and cabbage tree roots were also important. Maori excavated special ovens to steam the starchy roots, and there are dozens of these pits around.”
In 1800, there were 2000 Maori on the peninsula, Knight estimated. The first whalers and sealers probably reached the harbour in about 1810, and for Maori it was mostly downhill from there. Influenza killed many in the 1820s, and measles claimed another contingent in 1835. Dubouzet, an officer of the Astrolabe, wrote scornfully of Otakou in 1840 as consisting of about 30 wretched huts containing idle, intoxicated men and dirty, unpleasant women. Many women had been prostituted to sailors by their husbands or fathers in exchange for blankets and drink. By 1878, the Maori population had fallen to 116.
Scots Presbyterians founded Dunedin in 1848, and the peninsula slowly became a farming community serving the town. The provincial government’s intention was that the lower ground on the harbour side of the peninsula become 10-acre market gardening blocks, while the higher reaches were to become 30-acre dairy farms, and this scheme eventually transpired. Two cheese factories were set up, the first at Springfield Farm in 1871—the first in the country—and the second at Harbour Cone, behind Portobello, in 1877. Some years later, five creameries were established.
The discovery of gold in Otago in 1861 accelerated Dunedin’s growth, and it became the country’s largest settlement. In short order, the peninsula’s forests were felled to provide timber for the young city’s houses and buildings. Large quantities of matai and rimu were milled, especially around Sandymount and Cape Saunders. There was no road along the peninsula until 1877, so transportation of timber—and all other human contact—was by boat. Even places close to the base of the peninsula, such as Glenfalloch and Macandrew Bay were served by water traffic only.
Several lime kilns were built behind Sandymount, producing burnt limestone for cement manufacture—an enterprise which continued intermittently up to 1933. Flax milling was another small-scale industry that brought money to the peninsula. William Robertson, who owned land behind Sandfly Bay, built water races around the side of a valley feeding a large reservoir, and ran a 14 ft waterwheel to power a scutching mill. Smaller wheels were constructed near Hoopers Inlet and behind Boulder Beach.
As the forests came down, dairy farms spread their pastures over much of the peninsula. Wire hadn’t been invented when the first fences went up in the 1860s, so they were made from timber—broadleaf for posts with two or three kowhai rails—or from volcanic boulders, which littered the ground in places.
About the time of World War I, truck transport made it more economic to collect milk from the many small dairy farms and take it to a new, larger factory in Dunedin. The small creameries closed. Farmers who had taken the skim milk back to their farms and raised pigs with it could no longer do so. Some of them moved to richer land down the Taieri, and the rural population on the peninsula started to decline. Dairying started to be replaced by sheep farming. Since World War II, commuters and tourists have kept the peninsula going.
After the history lesson, I took Knight for a drive of the peninsula so he could point out items of interest. “A lot of these cribs down towards the heads were originally built on the seaward side of the road, but erosion forced them to be relocated to the landward side, although shifting sand at times buried houses on that side . . . These ‘carvings’ at the Otakou marae were actually cast in concrete in the 1940s, due to a shortage of carvers. Ngai Tahu holds its Waitangi Day celebrations here every third year . . . See those parallel rows of stakes sticking above the water? They mark the position of the tramline which was used to haul wood. The rails are thought to be there still, beneath the mud . . . All the sand at Sandymount came ashore in about the 1840s—it’s a very unstratified deposit—but nobody knows where it originated from. It was too early to have come down the rivers from gold workings in Central Otago . . . For a time in about 1910, Broad Bay and the peninsula were the Queenstown of Dunedin. Boating and yacht racing on the harbour were very popular, and lots of more affluent people built weekend cribs. Then the motor car itself became the outing, and other roads became popular. You have to remember that the harbourside road down the peninsula was built for horses, and was just gravel until the late 1950s. For cars, it was passable, but not great.”
Nowadays this road is sealed all the way to the heads, but between Dunedin and Portobello, at least, it still requires careful attention. In general, peninsula roads can be classified as straight or flat. The straight ones tend to undergo rapid changes in altitude, while the flat ones thrash about from side to side with some vehemence. The Portobello road is of this latter type. But there are compensations. Ever-changing panoramas of the harbour appear at every turn. Few guard rails or other obstructions mar your views of Neptune’s domain, which starts a couple of metres beyond your left wheels, and, if the tide is in, about a metre below you. Given the right sort of slop, you could be dodging mullet and seaweed.
Unobstructed views are a feature of most peninsula roads. To be sure, there is the occasional farmer’s tired fence, its posts long ago having made their accommodations with gravity, its several rusting wires swinging nonchalantly in the breeze. But such flimsy structures offer little impediment to light—or vehicles. Prudent drivers keep their eyes glued to the road.
For the first section of the trip down the peninsula, the macadam is sandwiched between the sea and low cliffs. Periodically a steep driveway or no-exit road clambers up from the harbour to unseen houses above. Artists are particularly well represented among the peninsula’s inhabitants, and just before my visit some 60 or 70 of them, belonging to ABBA (Association of Broad Bay Artists) had exhibited in local halls. Mark Strang, one of the organisers, told me that about half made sales, as often as not to locals. “While it’s nice to have money flowing in from outside the district, it’s also good to know that you are appreciated by the people you live among,” he said.
Strang himself is a painter of abstracts: “I’m inspired by what you might call the spirituality of landscape.” His paintings, often in several panels, contain a variety of the kinds of triangles the peninsula’s hills form as they rise from the sea, but the resemblance ends there, for his paintings are rich in reddish-orange and blue-grey tones. “Someone suggested the other day that I needed more green in my paintings, and it was Pierre Bonnard who said you could never have too much yellow. Now that’s the kind of advice which is really useful!”
I asked him why he thought so many artists live in the vicinity. “I’d say it was the beauty of the natural environment, plus the relatively laid-back lifestyle. Fifteen years ago, it seemed that the peninsula was going to become middle-class, but the trend stopped and property prices have barely risen in the last 10 years, although not many properties come up for sale. Dunedinites seem to view the peninsula as another world. It’s somewhere they come for Sunday drives, but, at 20 minutes from the Octagon, they consider it too far for regular travel. Most are used to five-minute commutes. Tourism is projected to grow, and we’d like to have a craft trail like the one in Nelson, though who knows if the tourists will be art buyers? I know it sounds elitist, but good art doesn’t sell. Many of us do saleable stuff for a few days a week and the art we want to do the rest of the time.”
One local artist has succeeded in making a living of sorts from the city council. John Noakes recounted how it started. “On one pelting wet day I saw all these kids crouching in a leaky bus shelter on the peninsula and thought that we should do something about it. I offered to paint it if others would repair it. Within days, someone from the next bay asked whether I could do their bus stop. After I’d done three, the council noticed, and ever since we’ve had a wonderful arrangement whereby I paint whatever I like and they pay for the paint and my time.”
Over the past 13 years, Noakes’ art has spread from the peninsula to bus shelters throughout Dunedin. Once painted, the shelters are largely immune to vandalism, although they may need touching up, and sometimes he changes parts of a painting. Sometimes, too, he starts work on a shelter and then leaves it for a few days, “to heighten the local sense of expectation.”
At Marion St shelter, in Macandrew Bay, he ended up painting an entire wall beside the bus shelter. “While I was working on the shelter, this guy jogged up and asked what I was doing. He kept bouncing up and down on the spot, as your keener joggers do, and said he lived across the harbour at Port Chalmers, but his mother lived nearby, and what would it cost to paint the whole wall? I said I’d have to work it out. A few days later he turned up at the shelter in a suit and car—I’d forgotten about him—and asked, `How much?’ Two thousand dollars,’ I said. He pulled out a cheque book, wrote me the cheque and drove off. I couldn’t believe it.”
Noakes did the wall, painting a string of unlikely characters along it and inside the shelter: Superman, Darth Vader, Santa, Pooh Bear, Eeyore and many more, each with a bus ticket in hand, waiting in the queue.
Along Highcliff Road—the aerial route to Portobello—one comes upon the house and studio of Derek Smith, an artist in ceramics who has created a distinctive line of blackened birds. His family has lived up here for six years, perched on a windy ridge with a view out to the wild outside coast at Sandfly Bay.
Smith uses a mould to form the basic shape of each bird and then spends half a day adding the details of beaks, feathers and feet. Completed birds are burnished with a smooth stone to impart a satiny finish before firing. Blackening is accomplished by immersing the birds in sawdust, which is heated until it carbonises. Smoke permeates the porous clay, turning it black all the way through. A few birds (notably albatrosses) are left white, and Smith makes the odd dolphin for variety.
Another peninsula artist, Audrey Eagle, lives a deliberately reclusive life, the better to focus on the task she has in hand: illustrating native plants. “Would you like to see some of them?” she asked me, lifting a wad of papers from a briefcase. Before me appeared a succession of superb renderings, one species to a sheet, on which a spray of leaves, flowers, fruit, seeds—whatever may be significant—was depicted with astonishing detail.
The more intricate watercolours take two weeks each, and the process involves drawing the illustration four times. By the time she has finished, Eagle will have illustrated 760 species—all our “higher” native land plants (which excludes ferns, mosses and the like). Two volumes of her work have already been published, and the third and final volume is perhaps a year away. “I’ve been working on this for 49 years now, so it will be 50 years to completion. I can’t wait to get it finished. I want to get on with the rest of my life—there is so much I want to do.”
She is a remarkable woman. Though reluctant to divulge her age—”people categorise you”—with 49 years of work behind her, she cannot be too youthful. Yet she thinks, moves and speaks with boundless vigour and zest, and, despite her commitment to her work, she still manages to belong to various societies—Forest & Bird, a Landcare group, the Otago Botanical Society—and maintain a worthwhile garden.
Beyond Portobello, where the hills pull back from the sea, a side road leads down to the curious settlement of Harwood, named for a whaling company storeman who stayed on to became a farmer and local dignitary. Although very much a seaside community—vast white tidal sandflats lie just across the road—the place has a decidedly down-at-heel air. Outbursts of flowering gorse and broom litter the verges and paint peels in leisurely fashion from many a wall. Old Fiats, Bedfords and Austins, their best days now just a rusting memory, lie in rank grass around the houses.
I had been told that Harwood emerged from a collection of makeshift cribs in the 1950s, when building materials were scarce. Not much seems to have changed, except that with poverty on the rise, most of the 100 or so houses are now permanently occupied. In the north, a location a mere 30 minutes’ drive from downtown would have been thoroughly gentrified long ago.
On the blustery weekday afternoon I drove through Harwood, a solitary pedestrian was the only manifestation of humanity. Yet the place was not unmitigated gloom. Amid a grove of teatree on a roadside section I spied a hand-lettered sign proclaiming “Waggenheim Exhibition,” a droll collection of creatures cleverly formed by welding discarded tools together. Small signs identified each species. The Terra Dock Tail was a brown, rabbit-sized creature with overtones of armadillo and giant ant. A fine peacock had been fabricated from metal rakes, an albatross from saws and shovels. Stick figures made from metal rods belonged to the Anorexia Family, and a wonderful praying mantis with a crosscut saw blade for a body perfectly captured the attitude of the insect.
My favourite was the White-Crested Defoliator, assembled from slashers, with saw blades for wings and old shears for feet. Graham Gauchet-Thomas looks after the menagerie, which was created by his best friend and stepdad, Mick, after he retired from a 25-year stint as a night watchman for the Otago Harbour Board. Mick died from cancer in 1998. Graham is also using his handyman skills to restore a Dunedin tram nearby.
As Hardwicke Knight had pointed out, tourism is now the lifeblood of the peninsula, and birds are at the top on the list of visitor attractions. Justly renowned is Taiaroa Head, at the tip of the peninsula, home to the only mainland colony of albatrosses in the world (see sidebar, page 40). Public tours of the colony are regularly conducted by staff of the Otago Peninsula Trust, which owns and runs the nearby visitor centre. Among the many albatross-related displays in the centre are live video feeds from cameras in the colony. I was surprised to learn that the colony is a recent advent. The first birds were seen in the area in the 1870s, but the first chick was not fledged until 1938.
As well as showing visitors the albatrosses, centre staff take parties around some of the fortifications that exist nearby. Maori long ago recognised the strategic importance of the headland, and built the most substantial fortified pa in the southern South Island here. More recently, Europeans erected their own extensive fortifications. The threat of an Anglo-Russian war in the 1880s was the spur to this defence work. This was the Age of Empires, and global manoeuvring was intense. A Russian foray into Afghanistan in 1885 was perceived as a threat to the British Empire everywhere.The first birds were seen in the area in the 1870s, but the first chick was not fledged until 1938.
“Russian naval vessels were also being despatched south from Vladivostok, which caused alarm,” guide Anne Rayns explained to the party I joined. “This old photo shows a Russian and a Japanese warship in Wellington Harbour in 1886. Those two vessels had more firepower between them than existed in the whole of the country at the time.”
A number of largish guns were promptly set up on Taiaroa Head among earth and stone ramparts. Central among them was an Armstrong Disappearing Gun, with a five-ton barrel and capable of firing 100 lb 6-inch shells a distance of 8800 yards. This impressive armament was mounted in a chamber just below ground level, from whence it could be aimed. After it rose up and fired, the recoil would reset it in its below-ground position ready for reloading. Tunnels gave access to the gun and its ammunition.
“The gun was the first breech loader, the first to have a laminated barrel and the first to be fired electrically,” Rayns continued, “and it could fire a round a minute.” An American asked whether the gun was ever fired in anger. “Not really, although it did once fire at a fishing boat which had not given the right signals in time. It fired live rounds in target practice, although that, too, was not in anger. A target was towed behind a tug, but because the target was an expensive contraption the gunners weren’t allowed to hit it, and the gun was therefore fitted with an angle-of-deflection device. This worked well, except once the gunners got it wrong and hit the tug.”
The Armstrong has been extensively restored and is now the only one of its type in operating condition in the world.
Another bird which draws large numbers of visitors to the peninsula is the yellow-eyed penguin or hoiho. This species breeds from Banks Peninsula south along the east coast of the South Island, around Stewart Island to the Auckland and Campbell Islands, but is nowhere common. The couple of hundred birds residing on the Otago Peninsula are more accessible than those at most other sites, coining ashore on several of the exposed eastern beaches.
Howard McGrouther, who farms 200 ha near the end of the peninsula, behind Pipikaretu Beach, runs a successful tourist venture taking people to see the hoiho which nest on his farm. “If people don’t see a penguin, I’ll refund their money,” he told me confidently. “So far, I haven’t had to pay out.”
McGrouther’s interest in the penguins started 19 years ago, when dense lupins frequented by the birds behind Pipi Beach died. Concerned that the penguins’ breeding would be affected, he started revegetating a 15 ha gully and subsequently built lakes and nesting shelters for the birds—and has seen numbers behind this beach increase from five pairs to more than 30.
Over the years his bird-welfare programme developed into a tourist attraction. Initially, he built viewing huts around the edges of the gully to give an overview of penguin activities, but the birds took them over as nest boxes. More recently, he has constructed a labyrinth of trenches and observation posts from which nesting penguins can be viewed at a distance of just four or five metres. The trenches are chest-deep with timbered walls and an inverted V of camouflage netting for the roof—and an abundance of viewing chinks. Where a major penguin thoroughfare crosses a trench, a wooden walkway two to four metres wide forms the roof.
This year close to 50,000 visitors will view McGrouther’s penguins. Unlike Taiaroa’s albatrosses, which are somewhat unpredictable in their appearances, yellow-eyed penguins trudge ashore every afternoon, even when not breeding. Tourist money has at times kept the farm afloat, and it also pays for conservation work and enables the employment of a dozen local people as guides and minibus drivers.
You don’t have to pay to see penguins, however. One evening I headed out to Sandfly Bay and followed the Department of Conservation signs down a steep track to the beach. At one end of the beach a female Hookers sealion, eyes closed, was squirming herself into a comfortable depression in the sand. Flies crawled over her eyelids and each breath puffed a shower of sand grains away from her recumbent snout. A few members of this rare species are now resident around the peninsula, and fur seals are not uncommon.
Signs directed me to a viewing hide in the dunes at the north end of the beach, where I found tour operator Les Cuthbertson and a young European woman. Cuthbertson passed me a pair of binoculars and pointed out a few penguins, immobile and almost invisible halfway up a steep grassy hillside just across from us. The birds seemed to be in no hurry. They would trudge doggedly for 20 or 30 metres then stand frozen for 10 minutes lost in meditation, before continuing. It reminded me of the approach I adopt when confronted by some repugnant task.
One, 25 minutes up the hillside, turned around and plodded back down to the beach, past a couple of colleagues, dived in and swam off. Those that persisted to the top of the hill occasionally threw out their chests, turned their bills skyward and let out the raucous “hoiho” call which gives them their name.
The hike looked like a major effort. Why do they do it, I wondered—up every night, down every morning. Surely they can find nest sites at lower elevations. Indeed, a couple of penguins suddenly materialised on a little ridge of sand only 15 metres away, peering about uncertainly as if their spectacles had suddenly been removed.
Yellow-eyed penguins are having a major influence on the peninsula. Much of the outer coast is now controlled by groups which have the welfare of the birds at heart: DoC, the World Wildlife Fund, the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, Howard McGrouther and others. The Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, which has been sponsored by Mainland Cheese for 11 years, has 2200 members, nine trustees and three employees. With the Dunedin City Council, the trust recently bought 231 ha at Okia, behind Victory Bay, and planted 14,000 native plants there to improve the habitat for penguin nesting. The trust is active on the birds’ behalf wherever they are found, not just on the peninsula. “Yellow-eyed penguins are very solitary, especially when nesting,” Dave Blair, one of the trust workers, told me. “One nest per hectare is about the usual density. If one pair can see another, both nests will usually fail.”
A bird of quite different character also has its origin and headquarters on the peninsula. Happy Hens was started by art teacher Yvonne Sutherland in 1984, and the colourful pottery creations are now sold around the country and overseas, although they are all made in Portobello. They are legless, rounded birds with a homely air, made in moulds and painted by several local people in a plethora of patterns, but for the most part resembling actual poultry breeds.
“The hens are popular with Europeans and North Americans, but not so much with Chinese,” Sutherland said. “I think that for them hens clucking in the backyard are still everyday life, not a memory like they are for us. We’re buying into nostalgia here.” The Happy Hen brand has now been extended to tiles, tea towels, mugs and salt shakers, and over 20,000 of the birds are made annually. Sutherland says the hens are really penetrating the public consciousness: “At a Christchurch A & P show, we and a few other Dunedin attractions, including the albatross people, mounted a display. Quizzes were held by the organisers, and one of the questions was, What are the famous birds associated with the Otago Peninsula?’ The Happy Hens,’ came the reply. Even the albatross people thought that was funny!”
Portobello’s other long-standing attraction is the public aquarium at the University of Otago’s marine laboratory, situated at the end of an isthmus that runs halfway across the harbour towards Port Chalmers. The foyer of the centre is dominated by a huge cylindrical perspex tank extending almost to the roof and filled with swimming fish and waving kelp. Down in the aquarium proper, tanks filled with unusual organisms line the walls, and in the middle of the room are shallow artificial rock pools stocked with durable creatures children can poke and squeeze.
Each of the main tanks contains organisms from a particular environment. Black coral entwined with snake stars, crinoids, unusual sea urchins and a couple of horse mussels constitute a display from Fiordland. At night the snake stars unwind and capture morsels of food on their tentacles. I watched seahorses glide sedately about another tank, propelled by incessant flutterings of their fins. Lobsters, blue cod, southern pigfish, wrasse, trumpeters, rockfish, blue mold and many more jockeyed for position elsewhere. Warty, wandering sea anemones the size of jam jars clung comatosely to the blades of seaweed, while paua and large black slugs shared an aquarium with a vigorous octopus, which swung smoothly about and clasped the glass wall a few inches in front of my face.
As I gazed into a wall tank of seal stars and crabs, a shadow appeared, and peering upwards I saw a pallid white hand writhing in the water. For a second I wondered if it was something to frighten the kids—it worked for me—but then it released a few bits of fish and I realised that the tank’s occupants were being fed by a hand gloved in latex. Presently, the owner of the hand, Hiltrun Ratz strode into the viewing room, and we watched the antics of the octopus together. “We feed it crabs,” she said. “See all the empty backs on the floor of the tank? Each octopus stays for a couple of years. This guy is pretty new. Want to come and see the fish outside being fed?”
Outside are a couple of swimming-pool-sized concrete ponds, stocked mainly with small sharks along with a variety of other fish, including a large conger eel. Twice a week the inhabitants are fed chopped fish. In summer the warm water increases their metabolism and appetites, and they then require four times as much food.
Ratz, one of seven part-timers employed by the aquarium, did her PhD on yellow-eyed penguins. When I told her that I had visited a few of the colonies and been impressed by the conservation effort being put into the birds, she gave a snort and asked me if anyone has told me that the numbers now are the same as when they were first studied in the 1940s. “I bet nobody told you that. There is no evidence that they have ever been common in the past, even a century or two ago.”
Daughter of the House and General Factotum” read the inscription on the business card Sophie Barker handed me. She was born six weeks after her parents purchased the semi-derelict Larnach Castle in 1967, and it has been home for most of her life. “We grew up here, and the family did a lot of the restoration and gardens ourselves. In fact, we have only just now employed our first full-time gardener.”
An impressive achievement. Larnach Castle includes 14 ha of grounds—although that is paltry compared with the 250 ha that Larnach himself once owned. Larnach, who married a French heiress with a dowry of 85,000 pounds, commenced his great mansion—the peninsula’s most famous building—in 1871, but it was not completed for 15 years. The final cost was estimated at 125,000 pounds (in an era when wages were a shilling a day) and it was constructed from the finest imported materials. In its heyday, 46 servants were employed about its 40,000 square feet.
But its heyday was brief. Larnach, who was involved in business and government, had two wives die from natural causes, lost a lot of money, and in 1898 shot himself in parliament over a scandal involving his third wife. The property and chattels were auctioned, and the building went through a succession of uses as a holiday retreat for nuns, a mental hospital, a retreat for shell-shocked soldiers and accommodation for the signal corps during World War II.
The ballroom had been used to pen sheep by the time the Barkers took over, and the rest of the building was in a state of commensurate disrepair. Today it is hard to envision such decay. Everything looks immaculate and authentic, although I cannot imagine it as home.
Many of the larger rooms possess striking, intricate ceilings of plaster or wood, each different from the others. The bathrooms, although state-of-the-art 1880s, look horribly basic by today’s standards. A very narrow, very tight spiral stone staircase—my arms easily spanned its diameter—leads up to the top of a parapeted tower. To the south-east, Peggy’s Hill obstructs the view, but in all other directions you can see for miles.
Larnach Castle is not the only gracious peninsula property open to the public. Near Macandrew Bay is Glenfalloch, a large house in 12 ha of gardens, built at the same time as Larnach Castle. From gentler terrain near the shoreline, the grounds ascend a steep gully. Huge pines, oaks, maples, English beeches, ashes, cedars, a fine matai and more shape the garden, while flowering shrubs such as azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias provide sparkling colour nearer the ground. Bellbirds fill the valley with melody.
Glenfalloch was the first property acquired by the Otago Peninsula Trust, which now also operates the Taiaroa Head visitor centre. The trust is involved in a range of restoration and conservation projects, yet it is not the only organisation that exists to protect the peninsula and its environment. At the more vociferous end of the green spectrum is Save the Otago Peninsula (STOP), which was set up at the time of the Aramoana aluminium-smelter proposal, one of its founders, Heindrich Koch, told me.
Koch certainly looks the part of the environmental radical, with a great full beard and long hair, but I enjoyed his company. “Quite a few of the business people associated with the Peninsula Trust supported the smelter, but some of us thought that a huge industrial complex directly across from the Heads couldn’t be good for the peninsula,” he explained. “Then it was suggested that the smelter be sited at Okia. Farmers and local Greens opposed it and merged to form STOP. We stayed around in case the smelter returned, but all that surfaced was a Consolidated Gold proposal in the mid-1980s to crush Harbour Cone and fill in Hoopers Inlet with the spoil!”
Stop has promoted general conservation values on the peninsula, with a focus on trying to preserve native habitats, and has fenced and revegetated a number of areas. It recently took the Dunedin City Council to the Environment Court for dropping any protection for bush from its latest district scheme.
Koch and his family live at the end of a particularly steep road on a small bush block above Hoopers Inlet. In gentle rain Koch led me to view some sizeable old rimu—among the few left on the peninsula—and an enormous 15 m broadleaf, a species I had always thought of as a mere shrub. He has carried out plantings of natives and clearance of weeds to bolster the bush, and in one area has put in what he calls “exotic natives”—alpines, shrubs from Stewart Island and the subantarctic, even a puka from the Three Kings.
Among the teatree, jewelled gecko are often seen, and at Grassy Point, south of Broad Bay, the country’s only gecko reserve has been established for just this species. However, it is not flourishing within its enclave. Most of the lizards have abandoned their sanctuary for surrounding gorse and scrub.
Koch runs a modest native-plant nursery, which provides some income, and also produces sculptures in wood, marble and Oamaru stone. His daughter, Kirsten, showed me some panels of incredibly intricate bead work, in which she had threaded beads half the size of rice grains onto dozens of fine cottons warps. Each piece takes hundreds of hours to complete.
All the family are involved in art of some sort. Eleanor, Koch’s wife (and artist Mark Strang’s sister) has written of life on the peninsula: “I have made the choice to allow the pace of the place to set itself on me, rather than the other way round. The slowing down of time is the most powerful influence (apart from its physical beauty) that the peninsula has imposed on me. It could be likened to walking with a toddler along a beach.”
I certainly enjoyed walking on the peninsula. One afternoon I drove down Karetai Rd—in the straight-butsteep category—and strolled down a grassy path to Maori Head. The cliffs running north-east from here towards Boulder Beach are spectacular. Probably a couple of hundred metres high, they are volcanic and craggy, and the implacable rollers tear in futility at their bases. Seabirds, tiny specks, wheel about in the distance, providing scale for the vastness of the bluffs.
The best of all was my walks was one to Sandymount and Lovers Leap. Admiral butterflies are common here, and sure enough, plenty of nettles, the caterpillars’ favoured food plant, were to be seen—and given a wide berth—in the surrounding scrub. The summit of Sandymount gives broad views, but Lovers Leap is much more impressive. There is no hint of verticality in the flat tussocky path that leads to an undistinguished enclosure—the sort of wire-mesh-and-wood concoction a farmer might use to carry a ram on the back of a pick-up—apparently sitting in midfield. Only once you stepped in did the chasm become apparent. It is as though the axeman of Maori myth who carved out Fiordland had taken a practice whack at the east coast. Stone cliffs arc downward to a narrow finger of sea washing far below on a tiny unreachable boulder beach. Across the seaward entrance to the chasm, a third of the way up the cliffs, lies a natural bridge. The whole thing has a remarkable symmetry to it.
Yeah. Don’t worry about it. Call me next week. I’ll attend to it . . . Just call me then. It’ll be Ok . . . Don’t worry . . . The insurance company? They’ll make a few inquiries. They’re not stupid . . . What will I tell them? There’s bugger all I can say except that you had a couple of drinks and put your car in the tide. I can’t expand much on that. Shit happens, it’s only the depth that varies. Call me next week.”
Peninsula policeman Lox Kellas put down the phone. “Sorry about that. Happens all the time, even though it’s my day off. I got a call this morning saying that a local car had been stolen and then found in Hoopers Inlet. A couple of inquiries showed that the owner—that was him on the phone—had been drinking, and it seems that the car wasn’t stolen after all. He’s got to front up to the insurance company, but I’ll help him out where I can. All I’m saying is you’ve got to look after your locals. They are your eyes and ears in a place like this.”
Kellas’ patch is the whole peninsula, and he has been in charge here since 1984. He comes from a fifth-generation peninsula family. One of his forebears was involved with early gold workings on Harbour Cone in the 1870s. Kellas himself, as well as being president of the A & P Society, is writing a history of the Territorials in Otago and Southland, and has a good knowledge of local history.
The place is always changing. Only three or four of the houses at Harwood used to be permanently occupied. Now there are 126 houses, almost all permanently inhabited. In 1903, there were 128 dairy farms. Now there are 26 farms, including one dairy farm. Since 1984, we have had several shops close and three post offices. But now there are 30 accommodation places, whereas in 1984 there was only one. There used to be six or seven workers’ busesa day, now everyone has cars. Sooner or later something major will have to be done about the roads. When cruise ships come in—we had 52 last year—the roads can get pretty congested. The Tartan Mafia in town can get things out of kilter. They bailed out the velodrome and a few other things, but they need to be doing something major about widening the roads out here.”
He told me that nowadays the policeman is the only official in a place like Portobello. “The stationmaster andpostmaster are long gone. The minister, schoolteacher and doctor all live in town. There are supposed to be 40-plus doctors living in the area, but when I want one to sign a death certificate, half are away overseas, some are at golf and the rest are taking their kids to sport. I usually end up getting a police doctor from Dunedin. Anyway, I witness wills, notify deaths and accidents, conduct investigations, carry out searches—do just about everything.”
“Who have you spoken to while you’ve been down here?” he asked. I told him. “The Clearwaters? There used to be so many of them that it was said if you threw a stone, you’d hit a rabbit or a Clearwater. Old Hardwickehe’s a bit of a hoarder. But if it weren’t for him a lot of local history would have been lost. Mark Strang had a wonderful abstract landscape in the art exhibition two years ago, but I didn’t think there was anything that really came out and smacked you in the gob this time. Broad Bay is the Peninsula’s Bohemia.” I got the impression that not much escapes the attention of Senior Constable Kellas.
He and his wife, Sharon, have decided to stay in Portobello. They have bought a steep 4 ha block a couple ofminutes up Highcfiff Rd. They are slowly demolishing what remains of an ancient house, salvaging a few odds and ends that are useful or interesting. Old macrocarpas are being tidied up or felled, bush in the gully fenced off to preserve it, gorse rooted out. A huge old rhododendron, decked in spectacular blossoms, will remain, close to the site of their new home.
“It’s a pretty good spot,” Kellas remarked. “We’ll look across the harbour to Port Chalmers and up to Taiaroa Head and the Aramoana Spit. And we know and enjoy the local community. It would be hard to imagine anywhere better.” And I would be hard pressed to disagree.