I felt like I had entered one of Richard Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries during the weekend I spent on the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin, New Zealand. If you’re on the south island you absolutely must head here for a close up and personal interaction with seals, albatross, penguins, birdlife, castles and some of New Zealand’s prettiest coasts.
The best way to explore the peninsula is to rent a car and travel around. It’s only 20-30km from Dunedin so an easy day or weekend trip. VIP Backpackers has accommodation in the city or you can stay out on the peninsula yourself.
Here’s a few tips on how and where to see wildlife:
Seals have made a resurgence to New Zealand’s waters and the wonderful thing about the Otago Peninsula is how they are now a commonplace sight on the rocks and beaches. Some good places to see them include the rocks below the Taiaroa Head Lighthouse beyond the Albatross Centre. Enormous Hooker Seals weighing up to 400kg can be seen on Allan’s Beach usually at low tide. The females are smaller at 200kg and a different sandier colour. I also saw cute sea lions sleeping at Sandfly Bay, apparently fur seals and even leopard seals have been seen here. There are often a number of immature male fur seals at Pilot’s Beach during the day, a small cove on the sheltered side of Taiaroa Head. I saw a good half dozen here one afternoon.
The albatross is a bird with the largest wingspan in the world, measuring up to three metres. Their breeding colony is at Taiaroa Head. On a windy day they like to fly as their frames, measuring 8-9kg, are too heavy to carry without wind. So if it’s windy get yourself to the Royal Albatross Centre. You will most likely see albatross flying above the Centre and around the coastline, but really the best way to view them is to pay the $40 and do the one hour tour. I ummed and ahhed about it but in the end I’m glad I went in. You climb up to a viewing point where you can see the albatross nesting and they actually fly past you at head height. We were fortunate that three chicks had hatched and we saw two of the little ones. There is also a colony of rare Stewart Island shags here.
The Otago Peninsula is frequented by two kinds of penguins, the tiny Blue Penguin, the smallest in the world, and the gorgeous Yellow Eyed Penguin. Unfortunately I missed the latter but I do know where you can see them. You can pay for a tour at Peguin Place where they guarantee sightings, or take a risk and go to Sandfly Bay. It’s a good 40 minute walk to the Department of Conservation hide from the carpark (so plan ahead) and the penguins come in anytime usually after about 3pm or 4pm. I did go to Pilot Beach below Taiaroa Head one evening to see the Blue Penguins. Wildlife volunteers monitor the visitors here. I was here in early February and the penguins were coming ashore about 9.30pm. Once the first wave came into the beach we were instructed to sit down and they came waddling up the beach and through the crowd to their various nesting places. It was quite incredible.
There are a number of interesting bird species around the peninsula and even if you’re not that into birds you will enjoy spotting swans, spoonbills, herons and plovers.
The history of the peninsula is varied and interesting. Maori archaeological sites have been recorded across the land mass, I even went to an old Maori Church in Omakou. The Maori lived by hunting birds and seals and by fishing. Captain James Cook was probably the first European in these waters, sailing past in February 1770. Whalers and sealers were amongst the first European settlers.
During the 1860s Otago Gold Rush pleasure gardens were established in varying places and William Larnach acquired the land for Larnach Castle at Pukehiki, now restored and open to the public. A lighthouse was built at Taiaroa Head in 1864 and work was started on the winding harbourside road using prison labour and Maori prisoners of war.
There are many gorgeous routes to follow across the peninsula proffering fantastic views. A basic driving route would be to follow the coastal road on the way out to Taiaroa Head and then take the high road back, from where you can detour to the ocean side beaches and Larnach Castle.
If you have some tips for the Otago Peninsula feel free to share them!
Hope you’re enjoying the VIP Backpacker’s Travel Blog. There’ll be an update added every other Friday, so keep tuning in to keep your travel dreams alive! If there are any travel topics you want covered feel free to contact me, Jo, at firstname.lastname@example.org