Monday, 29 October 2012

The Otago Peninsula

When we visited Dunedin five years ago we arranged to do a wildlife tour on the Otago Peninsula with the renowned Elm Wildlife Tours. This time round we wanted to explore the peninsula and see some wildlife on our own, as we have a car to take us to places off the beaten track.

Dunedin is nestled at the head of Otago Harbour and sits on the doorstep of the peninsula. The harbour was formed around 10 million years ago by volcanic eruptions and is virtually surrounded by rugged hills. The Otago Peninsula separates the harbour from the Pacific Ocean and has long been acclaimed for its beauty, abundant marine wildlife and eco-tourism.

Although the Otago Peninsula is a short drive from Dunedin, we filled up our car with petrol before venturing on to the peninsula as there is nowhere else to fill up whilst you're on there. There are two main roads round the headland, Highcliff Road and Portbello Road each taking very different, but equally spectacular routes, offering sweeping views of the harbour on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

Driving up Highcliff Road we decided to head over to Sandfly Bay on the eastern side of the peninsula to see a colony of yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes) that are resident in the area and which is also a popular site for spotting Hooker's sea lions (Phocarctos hookeri). Having already seen Little Blue Penguins (kororā) at the Blue Penguin Colony in our fleeting visit to Oamaru (and we also saw them at Phillip Island in Australia), we were unlucky not to see yellow-eyed penguins at the Bushy Beach colony (in the Waitaki District) - but I guess they're not known as New Zealand's rarest penguin for nothing!

Looking across Sandfly Bay and Lion Rock from Seal Point Road

Somewhere in these sand dunes live some yellow-eyed penguins

One of the many beautifully sculpted sand dunes

Yellow-eyed penguins are unique to New Zealand and are the largest species of penguin living in a temperate region. They might also be the rarest penguin species in the world with a population of between 6,000-7,000 individuals. Known as hōiho (the Māori word for "noise shouter") they're easily distinguished from other penguins by their yellow iris and yellow band of feathers across the back of their heads. Hōiho are only found on the south-east coast of the South Island in mainland New Zealand and on the islands off Stewart Island, Stewart Island itself, the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island. Yellow-eyed penguins are considered such a national treasure (taonga) that they're on the reverse side of the $5 note, with Sir Edmund Hillary - the first person to climb Mt. Everest with Tenzing Norgay - on the other side.

Reverse-side of a $5 note depicting a scene on Campbell Island with a hōiho
Front-side of $5 note with Sir Edmund Hillary and Aoraki/ Mt Cook
Heading down a relatively steep sand dune to reach the beach, we then walked a kilometre along the beach to the southern end where a marked track lead us up to a hide to view the penguins. When we reached the hide there was a notice saying that the best time to see penguins is two hours before dusk and unfortunately we were there in the middle of the day! Although the bay itself was very picturesque and dramatic, it was pretty pointless going down to the beach for spotting wildlife, as all we saw was one sleeping sea lion and a couple of variable oystercatchers.

A variable oystercatcher and Lion Rock in the background

And I thought Baldwin St was bad! The climb back up the dune was a bit epic

In conclusion, Sandfly Bay is possibly is best saved as the last stop on your way out of the peninsula. The only saving grace was that we weren't being bitten by the blood sucking insects that the bay is thought to be named after - in fact the name actually refers to the sand flying off the top of the giant dunes.

Next stop along the peninsula was Taiaroa Head (originally known as Pukekura) at the very tip of the headland to see the Royal Albatross Centre via the small village of Portobello. Driving out towards the north eastern point of the peninsula, we straddled alongside the scenic Portobello Bay where the tide had gone out a long way leaving behind mudflats.

The Royal Albatross Centre is the only mainland breeding colony in the world for the Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi). Along with the Wandering Albatross, the Royal Albatross are the largest seabirds in the world, spending at least 85% of their lives at sea. Inside there are some interesting displays on the Royal Albatross as well as other local wildlife and history, however, a 45 minute guided tour of the centre costs $40 each so we decided to give it a skip. Despite opting to save our pennies, we were a little bit fortunate to see a couple of albatrosses majestically soaring on the thermals from the café area whilst we were having a cup of tea.

An "albatross" we spotted nestled in the bushes!

The centre is also the starting point for tours round the historic Fort Taiaroa, a warren of tunnels and gun emplacements originally built in 1886 to counter the potential threat of a Tsarist Russian invasion in the late 1880s and later used for training and defence during the First World War and World War II. However, the main attraction is the Armstrong 6-inch disappearing gun, which is actually a massive canon operated by hydraulics. Apparently, it is the only one still in working condition remaining in the world!

Before Taiaroa Head was established as a Fort over 100 years ago, it was originally a significant fortified Māori pā site for the Kāi Tahu tribe when it was first built around 1650.

View to Aramoana Spit and Portobello Bay from Taiaroa Head

Next we headed over to Allans Beach via some some narrow unsealed roads taking us right down to the water's edge at Papanui and Hoopers Inlets. I wouldn't have liked to have seen these roads once they flooded as it didn't look like it would take much to do so!

Taking a short 5 minute walk down to the beach, there wasn't much in the way of wildlife around, especially as it was a dog-friendly beach, which I thought was a bit strange considering there were plenty of signs warning you to watch out for sea lions and making sure that you keep your distance. The weather also took a turn for the worse with the skies clouding over and threatening to rain so we decided to give up for the day.

Wharekakahu is a steep-sided stack that you see from Allans Beach

A white-headed stilt (Himantopus leucocephalus) on the beach

Overall, it was a bit of disappointing day, which is a shame as the Otago Peninsula is a beautiful area, but we had expectations to see some penguins and sea lions as we had an unforgettable wildlife encounter when we were here last. I think the moral of the story is that it might be better to go on an organised wildlife tour as they know the best viewing spots (which are usually on private land) so you can see fur seals, sea lions and penguins in the best way possible to avoid disturbing the wildlife.

*** Following our underwhelming day at the peninsula, we had another crack at spotting some yellow-eyed penguins back at Sandfly Bay on a different day via a scenic walk at the Sandymount track to Lovers Leap and The Chasm. From here it's possible to walk back to Sandfly Bay in about 45 minutes.

A panorama of the Mt Charles and Hoopers Inlet from Sandymount Road- click here to view in hi-res

The track gives spectacular views of the Otago Peninsula's coastline and cliff tops, and leads to a couple of unfenced sheer cliff drops of at least 200m down to the sea - Lovers Leap in particular is part of a collapsed sea cave. Standing on the view platform next to The Chasm renewed my healthy respect for heights as I got a sense of vertigo having a peak over the edge...

The sign isn't kidding about an unprotected edge!

The Chasm is so steep that I couldn't get a shot of the bottom!

Lovers Leap and the cliffs at Sandymount are remnants of a volcano

Despite timing our return to Sandfly Bay an hour and half before dusk we still had no joy with seeing the penguins returning from their day at sea. It would be worth the Department of Conservation putting a proviso on their notice boards that you can only see these animals at certain times of the year, but generally I got the impression that spotting yellow-eyed penguins was a year-round activity.***

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