A walk on the wild side

RELIC: Each bay in  Otago Peninsula has individual character.
RELIC: Each bay in Otago Peninsula has individual character.

There is a piece of paradise hidden out the back of Dunedin.

Half an hour down the road which curls around the eastern bays of the harbour, the Otago Peninsula is a microcosm of New Zealand's history, its diverse wildlife and our dramatic natural setting.

Its beauty and the characters that live among it were the muse for Exploring the Otago Peninsula, the most recent book by writer and photographer combo Paul Sorrell and Graham Warman.

EXHILARATING: Mountainbiking down to the beach, on the peninsula’s wild side.
EXHILARATING: Mountainbiking down to the beach, on the peninsula’s wild side.

And like the peninsula, the book itself is part historical narrative, part wildlife photography and part celebration of the Kiwis that live there. Sorrell's writing is personal, while Warman's photographs grab the rugged beauty of its landscape and people, and the book includes recipes for some yummy local dishes. It also makes a great guide book for my three-day exploration of Otago's best-kept secret.

To explore the peninsula requires a a car. The winding journey, often on gravel roads high above the coastline, is nearly as good the destinations.

Portobello Rd, which connects the Peninsula to Dunedin, was built in the 19th century by prisoners, and many of the labourers were Maori exiled to Dunedin from Parihaka.

Each bay was home to self-contained villages and today they hold onto their individual character.

My first stop is Macandrew Bay.

The Bay Cafe is a good place to get morning caffeine and next door is the Bellamy Gallery, a display space for the extended Bellamy family. South Island scenery runs through much of Pauline Bellamy's work. The gallery also often features her sons' works. Max Bellamy is a multi media artist and Manu Berry a print maker.

The gallery is just one of many; the peninsula feels like an artist colony, and it has been home to some of New Zealand's favourite artists (Robin White) and the inspiration for some most famous art (Colin McCahon's Otago Peninsula).

It is still full of creative types who like to use their hands and their land to get by. Sorrell and Warman's book captures many characters, like Shem Sutherland, who is restoring the old harbour ferry; Neil McDonald, the local flounder fisherman; and Christine Garey, who hosts vintage teas in full Edwardian dress at my next stop, the historic Fletcher House.

The typical Dunedin weatherboard villa was the foundation of the Fletcher construction empire. It was the first house built by young immigrant Jim Fletcher in New Zealand in 1909, for the Broad Bay storekeeper.

You can smell the history in its walls; some rooms in the house still wear the original, now-faded wallpaper.

The home was bought by the Fletcher Trust in 1991 and has been restored and retrofitted with everything from period clothing in closets to a ceramic bedpan hidden under a bed.

The presence of villas slowly diminishes as I progress down Portobello Rd. At the tip of the peninsula, a classic lighthouse - white with a red top - guards Taiaroa Head, where a Maori pa used to surveil the length of the coastline.

When the first European ship entered the harbour around 1810, there were an estimated 1000 Maori living in villages along the shoreline. This was at a time when the population of Sydney was around 3000, Sorrell notes in the book.

Now, Taiaroa Head is the heart of New Zealand's own Galapagos and home to some of New Zealand's rarest wildlife.

Off the main drag and over the hills of private farmland, Elm Wildlife Tours takes me on an intimate encounter with the peninsula's animals. The tour offers a personal, unobtrusive meeting with fur seals, sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins.

Down a steep bank of farmland, we are led into a wooden shelter for a close-up view of seal pups learning to swim in rock pools; their parents are out at sea feeding. Clubbed to the brink of extinction, the native seal has made a strong comeback since becoming protected in 1978. But its estimated 50,000-60,000 population is still far from the 2 million in New Zealand before settlers arrived.

A walk through regenerating bush takes us to a beachwhere we come face-to-face with a fat family of New Zealand sea lions - the world's rarest sea lion species. The lazy group are lounging about after a big feed and are unfazed by our presence.

Hidden from the wind in another wooden shelter we wait as yellow-eyed penguins come in from the day's feeding at sea. Peering out of the observation hut, watching penguins jump in fright as they come across a sea lion, I feel like one of David Attenborough's cameramen.

The tour is a tribute to the close symbiotic relationship between tourism and conservation and nowhere in New Zealand have I felt so comfortable so close to truly wild animals.

In the last light I weave back over the hills to my rather regal accommodation: Larnach Castle. Another piece of the peninsula's fascinating history, the castle was built for local banker and aristocrat William Larnach in 1871.

After gold was discovered in Otago in the 1860s, Larnach was offered the position of manager of the Bank of Otago. He established himself as an influential merchant, farmer and government minister.

He also became the only cabinet minister to commit suicide while in office.

His family fought over the property when Larnach died without a will.

It was sold and used as a mental hospital and home for shell-shocked soldiers.

In the following years it was vandalised and changed hands many times before it was bought by the Barker family in 1967.

The Barkers have restored the castle and its gardens (an interesting blend of natives in European style) as a tourist attraction, restaurant and boutique accommodation.

The view from my room in the Larnach Lodge, which is perched high on the hills, looks down the length of the peninsula's mountains and into the harbour. And from the roof's battlements there is a 360-degree view across Otago.

On my second day, breakfast - fittingly, lavish waffles - is served in the old stables before I head off for a day observing another of the peninsula's extraordinary wild residents: The royal albatross.

Albatross spend 80 per cent of their lives on water, coming to land only to breed, and perched on the banks of Taiaroa Head is the world's only mainland royal albatross colony.

From the observation hut of the Royal Albatross Centre, I watch some of the 26 fluffy chicks, who already weigh up to 11 kilograms, stretch their wings that will one day grow to more than 3m. Their parents fish at sea and return to Taiaroa Head feed their chicks regurgitated squid and octopus.

From an old fishing boat given a new life by Monarch Wildlife Tours, I witness the full glory of these birds in flight. They fly effortlessly, inches above the water, before swooping up the hills to their chicks. They can reach up to 180kmh and have been recorded flying straight to Chile, a nine-day, 9000km journey.

My next night's accommodation takes me back along the remote gravel roads to Kaimata Retreat, a gem in the peninsula. The glorious three-bedroom luxury lodge is buried in native bush that runs to the sea.

There is not much to do apart from marvel, read, eat and be romantic. Suddenly I feel a bit lonely in this intimate piece of paradise. However, host Kyle Davidson, a surfer and environmentalist and who also runs a wild venison hunting company, is great company.

The venison cooked by the retreat's private chef is tender and delicate. The main course, a black rice seafood paella, features the mussels and cockles that Davidson peeled off a shipwreck that afternoon. I pass out, content, a big moon reflected in the inlet outside my room.

I am woken by the morning chorus. It feels like I'm in deep wilderness as the sun's first rays light the bay, which is slowly filling with the tide. The only other human presence is the chef, Pedro, who poaches me perfect eggs before I leave for a day of adventure.

From the top of Highcliff Rd, which climbs along the arterial ridgeline, you look across what Sorrell calls the "wild side" of the peninsula. Over the cliffs to the east, the next piece of land you will reach is Chile.

On the wild side, the temperature drops perceptibly, the trees are bent at right angles by the wind, and sea rolls into beautiful blonde beaches with breaks braved by student surfers.

And, according to the Lonely Planet travel guide, the tracks that run through the eastern peninsula are one of the top 10 cycle routes in the world.

Nick, from Offtrack Mountain Bike Tours, takes me down a steep slippery track through farmland. We start high in the peninsula and end our ride in sand. By the time we reach the gorgeous Boulder Beach my face is covered in mud and my heart racing from a genuine adrenaline injection.

But what goes down must go up and what was a five-minute thrill ride proves to be a 45-minute climb. While I gasp for breath, Nic relays the history of the surrounding farms that were first worked by the early settlers. The scoria walls that mark property boundaries are relics of the peninsula's Scottish origins.

Once we reach the top we head back down another steep track, past the villas of the peninsula's residential side. And I end where my three days started - at Macandrew Bay.

The Otago Peninsula is full of romance and adventure that can be enjoyed at anyone's pace. You can fly down the wild side on a mountainbike or meander through the colourful bays' cafes and galleries.

And if you can't visit the Otago Peninsula yourself, Sorrell and Warman's book is a personal insight into the beauty, people and wildlife of one of New Zealand's best hidden destinations.

Simon Day travelled courtesy of Tourism Dunedin

Sunday Star Times