Posted by: Alex | June 6, 2010

Exceeding All Expectations

May 3-5, 2010

For some reason, Dunedin never appealed to me, and as I drove north on SH1 under darkness, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Perhaps it was one of the young tow pilots on the airfield, a Dunedin native, who managed a guttural grunting sound and shrugged his shoulders when I asked him whether it was worth visiting.  Or maybe it’s just the way it sounds.  Duh-NEE-din.  Not quite the same ring to it as regal Queenstown or Māori-named Omarama (oh-MARE-ah-ma, Place of Light).  Regardless, suddenly coming towards me at 100kph was what I least expected to find out here.

MOTORWAY, announced a sign as one lane became two, and a divider appeared between lanes of opposing traffic.  I couldn’t believe it.  If Christchurch, the largest town on the South Island, didn’t have a motorway, then I would have to completely reset my expectations for Dunedin.  Passing through a valley of sorts, I guessed that the motorway’s only purpose was to handle daily commuter traffic.  I tried to picture standstill, bumper to bumper traffic at rush hour everyday, but I pushed the implausible thought from my mind and renewed my vow to never move to Los Angeles.

As I later found out, and was reminded of every time I made the steep walk up to my hostel, Dunedin and its harbor sit in the center of an ancient volcano.  Its central cone long since gone, eroded by eons of weather, the landscape surrounding the city forms a geological map of what was once the interior of this massive volcano, lava pouring, sometimes violently exploding, out of multiple vents.  Part of an unfathomably long cycle, the molten rock would rise from deep below the continental crust of New Zealand, exposed to sunlight for the first time in millions of years, having once formed the sea floor of the South Pacific.  Forcing its way out through a crevice or weakness in the volcano’s structure, its very nature transformed by unimaginable pressures and temperatures, this liquefied rock would sometimes cool to form a type of granite.

Hard and resistant to weathering, these scattered sections of granite within and around the volcano would eventually form the hidden backbones of the hills that surround Dunedin today.  More susceptible to the inevitability of erosion, softer rock disappeared more quickly, washed back into the ocean to form Dunedin harbor, the beautiful inlet between the Otago Peninsula and the mainland, and countless beaches, bays and headlands.  Occasionally this granite infrastructure is revealed, as in the Organ Pipes near Mt. Cargill, or the breathtaking, vertigo-inducing Lover’s Leap.  Dotted around Dunedin and along the Otago peninsula, the rigid backbones of these hardy peaks give the area a distinctive character, evoking the imagery of the seven hills of Rome, set in a cooler, harsher environment.  Our temporary human existence can barely comprehend the timescales involved in these events, their succession pieced together from ancient clues left in the rocks, and spreading over a timeline beyond which unique species appeared and disappeared.

Even if most of Dunedin’s population is unaware of the spectacular natural history beneath their feet, the majority are familiar with the concentration of unique fauna in the area.  The Otago Peninsula, extending 30km out from the mainland, is a remarkably diverse environment, offering a veritable cornucopia of outdoor experiences.  Merely a short drive from Dunedin you can find yourself on a remote beach, climbing an ancient sand dune, or running away from a grumpy sea lion, the nearest human several miles away.  In this beautiful arena, it requires little imagination to put yourself in a world before the sweeping impact of Western civilization, with the hustle and bustle of Dunedin out of mind.

The Northern Royal Albatross, with the second largest wingspan of any bird at 3m, nests at the head of the peninsula in an area assiduously protected from humans, rodents, and mammals: anything that might feast upon the eggs or disturb the nesting of this vulnerable species.  Returning biennially to the same nesting site from vast and solitary journeys that circumnavigate the southern pole, the royal albatross, much like the glider pilots that flock to Omarama, takes advantage of the strong winds that circulate at southern latitudes.  Able to lock the joints in its large, thin wings, the albatross prefers to soar like a glider than flap its wings.  Expending little energy and using a beautiful technique called dynamic soaring, the bird hugs the crests of waves, sometimes dipping below them only to suddenly pull up into a gust of wind and then dive below once more.  In this way, soaring as it searches for its next meal, the bird can cover immense distances without a single flap of its wings.  The vast majority of this species’s population lives in colonies on the Subantarctic Islands, far from the influence of humans and other land predators.

Another peninsular resident is the Yellow-Eyed Penguin, the rarest species of penguin in the world, with an estimated population of 4,000 remaining.  As with other penguin species, the yellow-eyed penguin rests on land, but with the stereotypical image of snowy Antarctic colonies, seeing a penguin lying between shrubs appears remarkably out of place.  The yellow-eyed penguin is particularly vulnerable on land.  Before the appearance of human beings, there were no land-based predators to speak of: New Zealand’s largest land-based animals were flightless birds, such as the Moa, hunted to extinction.

On a lonely beach one evening, I witnessed these penguins’ most significant natural threat in predatory action: sea lions.  Yellow-eyed penguins have a daily routine most of us would find familiar.  Pairing for life, both husband and wife leave their nest at dawn for a long day at the office: fishing at the edge of the continental shelf.  Swimming 15-25km off shore to the edge of this underwater plateau where deeper, nutrient-rich waters attract abundant sea life, they hunt for their fill of fish and arrow squid.  During breeding season, parents will alternate fishing duties, the other in the pair incubating eggs or tending to their young.  Eventually the chicks will be left alone while both parents fish during the day to satisfy their children’s insatiable appetite, a thankless task any parent with teenagers can attest to.  Within a few months the chicks will be fully fledged and ready for the challenges of life at sea on their own.

Now with a full stomach, the commute home is the most dangerous.  Having observed the penguins’ routine for thousands of years, the New Zealand or Hooker’s sea lion knows it well.  Swimming home around dusk to meet their partner back at their nest, penguins are most vulnerable as they approach the beach, and they must judge their landing carefully.  Step onto terra firma at the wrong moment, and their familiar awkward waddle, a stark contrast to their streamlined underwater finesse, makes an easy meal for an opportunistic sea lion lucky enough to feast on penguin for dinner.

Stepping onto Victory Beach, I soaked in the view.  The sun was setting, and my last-minute decision to visit the seductively-named ‘Pyramids’ had been a rewarding one, introducing me to an enchantingly secluded area of the Otago Peninsula.  Having trodden through a rare reserve of native forest and climbed one of the pyramids, yet another reminder of the area’s vulcan heritage, a wide sandy beach now lay before me, over a mile in length.  Brave and lonely pioneers, tall grasses form the demilitarized zone between soil-loving flora and the salty, nutrient-poor sand dunes on the coastline.  It was at the edge of these grasses that I stood, motionless, listening to the waves crashing into the shore, not wanting to disturb the tranquility of the scene before me.

The vast, timeless quality of the ocean is captivating.  Looking out into the South Pacific, my eyes registered a scene unchanged for tens of millions of years.  The land’s existence is fickle: plants and animals come and go, mountains are eroded into hills, hills into valleys, and storms devastate wide areas through flood and fire, reforming entire coastlines.  In contrast, the phlegmatic ocean keeps its affairs close, hidden beneath its undulating surface in dark waters.  Tirelessly delivering waves, travelers from distant continents, they collapse upon arrival at the shoreline, energy expended, taking their secrets to the grave.  Survivors of the Victory shipwreck, original Māori settlers, the ill-fated Moa, the first penguins to discover this nesting ground: all would have stood here, looking out upon the ocean, experiencing the same salty taste of the air, the slightly arrhythmic sound of crashing waves, and the seemingly infinite reaches of its horizon.

Previously ignoring its motionless hulk lazing on the beach, I watched as a sea lion was suddenly animated into motion, hauling itself the short distance into the ocean, its tail flipper disappearing behind a wave crest.  Surprised by its energetic decision, I scanned the rest of the beach, curious to spot any further activity.  In the far distance, I strained to see what looked like a penguin waddling towards the tall grass, but the dim dusk light is apt to play tricks, and I wrote it off as a shorebird.  As I continued to watch, the diminutive creature made a beeline for the grass and its obstinate, determined pace began to seem like a better fit for the mentality of an exposed and vulnerable penguin.  It slowed as it neared the grass, hopped up with both feet, and with a waggle of its tail abruptly disappeared into the thicket.  There was no doubt it was a penguin.

Completely unprepared for a personal wildlife display, a smile stretched across my face, and I crouched down, retrieving my camera from my pack.  I waited.  I was now also keenly aware that the sea lion would be patrolling the beach some distance off shore, looking for a succulent meal.  I crossed my fingers for the endangered penguins to get home safely but simultaneously expected to see a sea lion exploding out of the water with a limp, bloody penguin firmly in its jaws.

Watching the waves roll in beneath the fading light, I spotted several creatures’ heads bobbing in the water.  Their tiny pointed heads could easily have been mistaken for those of ducks if it weren’t for their almost completely submerged bodies, only a short tail showing above the water.  Two more penguins were on their way home.  Occasionally they would disappear underwater for several seconds, appearing between two wave crests.  Knowing that a predator was in the water with them, I couldn’t understand why they were loitering just a few feet from the shore.  Come on, get out of the water, I urged them.  Two more heads appeared beside the first two.  Then another.  Is there greater safety in numbers?  Do a few brave scouts clear a safe entry path for the others?  Crouching low, I edged closer to try to capture some photographs.

As if awaiting some unknown signal, the close-knit group remained in the water.  What are they waiting for?  Every second is time gained for the sea lion. Though at least 100 meters away, I became terrified that it was I that was giving the penguins pause, holding them back from their homes, at risk in the shallow water by the shore.  Immediately, I stood up and started walking away down the beach, my urgent steps kicking sand onto the back of my trousers.  Looking back over my shoulder some 50 meters further down the shore, one of the penguins had taken its first few steps onto the sand.  I stopped and crouched down again.  Were they really waiting for me to leave?  Or were they simply taking a last chance to cool down in the water?  The rest soon followed, pausing periodically to preen themselves.  Their seeming lack of urgency was painful to watch.  Were they even aware of the sea lion?  Or did they somehow know that he wasn’t a threat?

I watched as they made their way into the grass amongst the sand dunes, pairing up along the way.  The fifth raised its head skyward and made a loud call.  A similar call came from somewhere within the nesting area: someone was already home waiting for their partner to arrive.  Six more heads appeared in the water this time, and the same excruciatingly unhurried choreography repeated itself.  Noticing that the sun had long since set, I glanced at my watch and decided that nature knew how to take care of itself, but that it was a delicate balance remarkably easy to disturb.

On the 30 minute walk back to my car, I reveled in how privileged I had been to experience the happenings on the beach, entirely by accident.  Walking inland, the sand turned to tall grasses, in turn giving way to shrubs, then squat slow-growing native trees.  Frightened by my passing, a hedgehog tightly curled itself into a defensive ball, before a wooden fence gave an abrupt and rude reminder that my evening walk had been entirely within the bounds of a nature reserve.  Cows mooed and rabbits dashed underground, a flash of white tail, aliens grazing on a foreign grass pasture.

The sad and unfortunate truth is that despite the New Zealand government’s extensive efforts at promoting the country as ‘100% PURE’, the majority of the natural landscape has been irreversibly changed, with few areas exempted from economic needs and influences such as farming and mining.  Not that New Zealand is any more guilty than other countries.  After all, people need to eat, and successful economies need to products to trade.  In fact, among OECD countries, New Zealand boasts the largest proportion of land area legally protected for conservation purposes[1].

It’s the stark contrast between protected and cultivated land that is so jarring.  In such a beautiful country, it’s hard not to wish that more of it was left intact, that wildlife encounters could be more numerous.  Wanting to experience more of the indigenous landscape firsthand, I took the advice of a local, and with a full tank of petrol, headed south on SH1 to my next destination.

[ View Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula from space here (Google Earth). ]


1. Legally protected conservation land in New Zealand.  Ministry for the Environment.  Retrieved 6 June 2010.

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