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Dunedin Catlins

12th January 2012

Admiring the Birds and New Zealand's Only Castle on Otago Peninsula

Looking Down Stuart Street to Dunedin and Otago Peninsula Beyond
    A rainy night was followed by a misty start to the day. I made my way across to the Otago Peninsula to sample some of its diverse range and abundance of marine wildlife. The peninsula offered it all, from frolicking seal pups and lazy sea lions, to thriving populations of rare yellow-eyed penguins and the only accessible mainland colony of Northern Royal Albatross in the world. I made my way across the city, skirting around the tip of the harbour as I crossed the isthmus leading me onto the 35km-long crooked slither of land separated from the mainland by Otago Harbour. Once on the peninsula, I picked up the narrow Portobello Road that weaved along the western shoreline, passing sparsely populated tiny bays with stilt-mounted boathouses.
    Across the crystal clear waters I recognised Dunedin at the head of the harbour, which from this side of the harbour appeared to be a pebble-dash of white buildings spread up the steep slopes and beyond.
Dunedin Across Otago Harbour - Notice the Green Belt
    Company Bay was my turning off point for climbing inland to Larnach Castle. I climbed on and up, but once I became enshrouded in mist way before I reached the dizzy heights of the castle, I decided to postpone my visit, hoping that the cloud base would lift later in the day.
    Thus I descended from whence I came, drove through the village of Portobello and as far as I could get along the peninsula, Taiaroa Head (Pukekura), where cold waters reared up from the continental shelf, providing a rich and constant supply of food. This was home to the Royal Albatross Centre, the only mainland colony of albatrosses in the world. Taiaroa has served as a defensive position from the beginning of human occupation around 700 years ago. Maori established a permanent settlement at Otakou on the coast 6km south, and a fortified village (pa) was built at Taiaroa Head.
Stewart Island Shags and Their Nests
Sleeping Royal Albatross
    From the early days of European settlement, signalmen, lighthouse keepers and harbour pilots were based at Taiaroa Head. In the 1870s, New Zealand was made responsible for its own land defence and as a result, a plan was formulated to defend the major ports. In 1885, with the threat of war between Britain and Russia, the construction of Fort Taiaroa began. The addition of barracks and militiamen meant that by the turn of the century there were over 100 people living permanently at Taiaroa Head. Similar to the fort at North Head in Devonport, Fort Taiaroa had an Armstrong Disappearing Gun.
    The stench of rotten fish sent my nostrils twitching as I climbed out of my waggon. I was to learn that birds such as Shag don't tidy up after themselves when they drop bits of fish. I joined the obligatory tour, our German guide gave a short presentation, and then we promptly trooped up a winding path towards the top of the head to a hide. Albatrosses don't go in for flapping their wings and flying, they like a strong wind into which they can spread their enormous 3m wingspan (they are second in size to the wandering albatross), step off a slope and just soar into the air. Today we had of course a slight breeze, so no flying displays from the Royal Albatross.
Red-billed Gulls and Their Chicks
    Our guide pointed out a female of the species, only 12m away, fast asleep as she incubated a solitary egg; the birds only lay a single egg per season. The female and her mate, who would be partners for life, would have mated in October, and the egg would have been laid in November. Once laid, the partners would take it in turns to stay on the nest for 7 days or so, usually sleeping, while the other parent disappeared off for that time just feeding themselves. The cycle would repeat over the incubation period of 11 weeks, one of the longest incubation periods of any bird.
    The egg is very large, and it takes on average 3 days for the chick to emerge from the shell. During March, the guard stage, parents take turns feeding and sitting on the chick for the first 30-40 days. From April to July, the chicks are left on their own, and the parents return separately to feed them every 2-4 days.
    In August, the chicks start to become active and walk around. Feeding is then less frequent. Then come September, the chicks flee the nest, and are gone for 4-6 years on average, staying out at sea for the whole duration.
Spotted Shag Feeding Time
    Meanwhile, the parents whose duties are complete, leave the colony and spend a year at sea before returning to breed again the following season. On their travels, the pair will separate, and circumnavigate the southern hemisphere between the latitudes of 30�-60�, travelling up to as much as 1000km/day at speeds up to 170km/hr, using the Roaring Forties and Screaming Sixties for the free ride. They could travel 190,000km per year, and had a life expectancy of 45 years. Miraculously they would arrive back at the colony within a day or two of each other.
    These monarchs of the skies hadn't always lived here. There is a theory that their primary colonies on the Chatham Islands became overcrowded, and Taiaroa Head became an overspill site. The first egg was laid here in 1920, and the first chick fledged successfully in 1938. Since then the colony has grown slowly to a population of around 150 now.
    Far below the slumbering albatross were gathered a noisy bunch of Stewart Island Shags. They were having the Shag equivalent of Prime Minister's Question Time, and boy were they gesticulating. An area slightly above them looked like a miniaturised lunar landscape, complete with dozens of craters. These craters were the nests of the Shags, made out of a mixture of mud, seaweed and bird droppings.
    At the very bottom of the cliff, fur seals played amongst the Bull Kelp. The channel here across the mouth of Otago Harbour was very narrow; I would have loved to have seen one of the large cruise ships negotiate its way through the tricky opening. Large ships could only get as far up the harbour as Port Chalmers, beyond which the channel became narrow and shallow.
Larnach Castle
    I also braved the danger of fallout from the hundreds of red-billed and black-backed gulls flying near the cliffs, and walked out to spot Spotted Shags on the cliff faces. Close at hand was a ledge where a couple of chicks stood near their nest, continuously calling out to their parents and moving their heads from side to side. When a parent swooped in to feed them, I saw that the chicks were as large as the parents. Like the albatross, the shag just seemed to use the wind to fly, only flapping their wings when they were flying in v-formation.
Larnach Castle Grounds
    I didn't hang around to see yellow-eyed and blue penguins; they would only be appearing towards the end of the day. Instead, I made my via gravel tracks across rugged farmland criss-crossed by drystone walls (as opposed to the ubiquitous No.8 fencing wire found elsewhere in the country), reflecting the Scottish heritage. On the eastern side of the peninsula, I tracked around Papanui and Hoopers Inlets with their tidal mudflats, each with its own selection of pied stilts, godwits, black and variable oystercatchers and spur-winged plovers and other waders, and then climbed back over the peninsula to Larnach Castle.
    William Larnach, an Australian, was a successful banker and politician. He built the castle, New Zealand's only castle, though it is more of a chateau than a castle, for his beloved first wife, Eliza Jane Guise, a descendant of French nobility. Construction began in 1871, and 200 workmen laboured for three years before the family moved in. Gifted European craftsmen worked for twelve more years to embellish the interior with the finest materials from around the world, which arrived at Port Chalmers, and were then punted across the harbour and hauled uphill by ox-drawn sleds. The building was completed with the addition of the splendid ballroom in 1887, Larnach's 21st birthday gift to his daughter, Katie.
Panoramic View Across Otago Harbour and Peninsula from Larnach Castle      (please use scroll bar)

    The castle had an exciting, scandalous and sometimes tragic history. But it all came to a tragic end, when in 1898, William Larnach, seated alone in a committee room in Parliament, took his own life with a single pistol shot to the head, financially ruined, and with his latest wife and favourite son romantically linked. Thus died one of New Zealand's most remarkable men. A successful landowner, Minister of the Crown, banker, financier and merchant Baron, Larnach's lasting legacy was his great castle overlooking the Otago Harbour.
    The castle went into decline. When the Barker family bought it in 1967, it was virtually empty of furniture and in a very sad state of repair, with many leaks in the roof. They had worked hard to restore the building to its former glory. Although the castle is their private home, they wanted to share this treasure with the world.
    Sadly, I was not allowed to take photographs inside the ostentatious, Gothic mansion, but suffice to say the interior was lavishly covered in wooden carvings, superb plaster mouldings, and with a splendid collection of original furniture, paintings and tapestries dating from Larnach's time. It was indeed a little gem, and it was good to see somebody had taken the initiative from a heritage stance.
    By the time I had finished, it was too late to start heading down the coast, so I opted to hang around the Dunedin area for just one more night.

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Dunedin Catlins

Uploaded from Te Anau lakeside on 17th January at 18:40

Last updated 17.1.2012