New Zealand’s Wild Cities: A Kiwi Kinda Adventure

Short drives from Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch lead visitors to rare penguins, sea lions play-fighting on beaches, and fur seals having a lovers’ tiff.  
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Wait long enough in the discreet sheds built along the Otago Peninsula and you’ll see yellow-eyed penguins waddle out of the sea after a hard day’s swim. They’re among the rarest in the world, but Otago gives visitors ample time to observe their adorable antics. Photo By: Xavier Fores-Joana Roncero/Alamy/Indiapicture

Dunedin

Come hail or harsh sun, the Otago Farmers Market pops up outside Dunedin Railway Station every Saturday morning. Its stained glass windows perk up when the morning light hits its early-20th-century facade. In the lawns, out come pumpkins the size of doll houses, Pinot Noirs from the Central Otago Peninsula, and buskers with guitars and voices like honey. A Frenchman hands me two crêpes: one with poached pear bundled in chocolate sauce and custard, another packed with Jerusalem artichokes, pork, cheese and egg. People’s purses balloon with jars of fragrant honey made from manuka bushes. A man with crinkly eyes doles out bacon butties, pepper pâté, and a smile each. And pies, oh there are pies everywhere. I try the traditional hangi (Maori feast) pie with beef, pumpkin, kumara (sweet) potato, and carrot. I feel I’ll never be able to eat another meal again. Until I move to the next truck.

It has been a long time since a group of Scottish settlers came to this part of Maori land in the mid-19th century and named it Dunedin (‘Dùn Èideann’ is the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh). Today, the city is a peppy university town, with ringing pubs, stunningly preserved Victorian and Edwardian buildings, a castle, and even its own kilt shop.

But I am here for Otago Peninsula, a mere 30-minute ride yet a world away, where the van waiting outside the railway station will take me.

Beyond the window of this little shed is a world that was never tamed. Cliffs so high that they’d tingle toes; the sea so blue that it can see into your soul. Dusk makes the ancient bays and beaches of the Otago Peninsula seem a bit broody. The wind howls and roars, but the green and gold tussock by the harbour bears it stoically.

I peer a few feet ahead, at the sea. Anytime now.

A yellow-eyed penguin emerges; it toddles slowly with hunched shoulders, as if walking back from school after flunking a maths test. I can sympathise: it has dived into the sea 200-300 times today, swimming 65-230 feet each time in search of seafood. It comes close enough to the shed for me to see its rad yellow eyebands—which gives it its name. Its irises too are the colour of van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.”

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The royal albatross (top)—one of the world’s largest birds—and cheeky Hooker’s sea lions (bottom) are some of the creatures that call the Otago Peninsula home (bottom inset). The peninsula is a mere 30-minute drive from Dunedin (top inset). Photo Courtesy: Dunedinnz (Albatross); Photos By: Michael Rucker/ImageBroker/Getty Images (sea lions); Daniel Harwardt/iStock/Getty Images (coast)

Knee-high in size, this penguin species is believed to be the world’s rarest; about 3,000-odd ones are found only here, in New Zealand, on the eastern and southern coasts of South Island. I’m incredibly lucky to see them like this in the wild, where they roam free and are at home.

In seconds, more and more cuddly creatures rise from the sea, some strutting like calendar models, oblivious to me and my guide silently whooping in the hide. Mark, the guide, has seen this hundreds of times; he taps my arm when one penguin throws back its arms à la Shah Rukh Khan, and emits a long shrill cry. “Their Maori name is hoiho, which means ‘noise shouter’,” Mark whispers as the penguin sings with rockstarish head-shaking. Hoihos aren’t very sociable; I watch one accidentally headbutt a sheep on its way up the cliff behind us, waddling on quickly without meeting its eye. At the top, one curious lone penguin stands like Christ the Redeemer. For 15 whole minutes.

All life in the 33-kilometre Otago Peninsula revolves around preserving its creatures—the yellow-eyed and little blue species of penguins, New Zealand fur seal, New Zealand sea lion, and royal albatross. Large stretches are unpaved and settlements are small; it’s heartening to see some private properties have walking tracks for the easy passage of tourists. Trench-like hides built at various beaches and corners along the peninsula ensure that some wildlife (penguins in particular) rarely comes in direct contact with visitors. Operators like Mark’s company, Elm Wildlife Tours, are visibly passionate about ecotourism.

At the northernmost tip of Otago Peninsula is Taiaroa Head. The main attraction on this windswept piece of land jutting from the coastline is The Royal Albatross Centre, the only breeding colony on a mainland for the world’s largest seabird. Their wingspans are more than 10 feet (that’s twice the size of my mother). Rob, a guide at the centre, leads me to a viewing room with a glass panel. A young chick is huddled outside on a patch of grass, looking like it were made of cotton balls. Adult albatrosses spend almost 80 per cent of their time at sea, returning only to feed their young. They divvy up parenting, like the progressive spouses they are. Rob speaks of these gentle giants as if their lives are no less gripping than his favourite soap opera. “Royal albatrosses, or toroa, have a three-year mating period, so if you get bored of your partner, it’s going to be a while before you’ll settle down again,” he says. His favourite albatross here, he adds, was the one called ‘Grandma’ because she raised her last chick at 62. “She divorced one of her partners, but got back again. Then there’s one here in his 30s, who is bereaved and hasn’t put himself out there again,” rues Rob. As the perfect ending of his story, an adult toroa comes soaring in a circle, and swoops in towards its chick. I see its grace. These “ocean wanderers” fly 1,90,000 kilometres a year; I think of how, in less than eight months, a strong gust of wind will launch the baby albatross on its maiden flight.

Exploring the Otago Peninsula largely on foot, beside empty beaches, inlets, and dreamy purple clusters of hebe blossoms, feels more intimate than a safari. It also drives home an important lesson: that it’s me who’s on the turf of these creatures. Making myself invisible—huddling in hides, standing behind glass panels—is key to understanding them.

So I feel oddly exposed when Mark walks down Papanui beach in long strides, towards two, five, nay, nine sea lions roaring and gamboling in the sand. “They are endemic, the Hooker’s sea lions; confident around humans. Maintain safe distance, and you’re fine,” he says, coaxing me to stand about eight feet away from one that weighs at least 350 kilograms. He takes photos while I look over my shoulder at the way the creature bullies and playfights smaller lions around him, throwing sand over them, barking and chasing them. Almost all sea lions at Otago, I learn, are related to ‘Mum,’ a female who had a pup here in 1993—the first to be born on the mainland in over 100 years (www.elmwildlifetours.co.nz; tours from NZD122/Rs5,760 adults, children NZD112/Rs5,300).

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All you need to observe New Zealand fur seals along Tongue Point, a 20-minute drive from Wellington (inset), is curiosity and a healthy 15-foot distance. Photos By: Skyimages/iStock/Getty Images (seal); Fotoshoot/Alamy/indiapicture (boy)

From the airplane, you can see the Hollywood-style sign perched on a hillside. ‘Wellington’ it reads, the last two letters askew, floating skyward. On ground, the world’s windiest city pops with Victorian homes along its harbour.

That evening, my walk from Wellington’s waterfront to Cuba Street passes through revolving doors of the world: Japanese, Vietnamese, Moroccan, and Indonesian food aromas come drifting, transporting me to secret kitchens. Coffeemakers hiss with head-clearing Cuban coffee at Fidel’s café; a puppeteer pulls strings to make her puppet paint a portrait of a little girl standing close by, sending her into squeals of disbelief. At Cuba Street’s night market, a persistent steampunk jewellery artist, a bookshop, and a paella stall tug at my heart and purse strings.

They say you can walk from one end of the Kiwi capital to the other in 30 minutes, and I do. The morning after, I book a tour with Seal Coast Safaris to look beyond the windy city. In just 20 minutes, Kent, my guide for the three-hour tour, drives the 4WD to a wind turbine on Brooklyn Hill, through private farmlands with ostrich and red deer. Soon, I see old mountains lick the waters of the South Coast. Wellington seems far away, and this place its rustic sibling—no golden sand beaches or sunbathers, no people at all.

Just the sea pummelling grey outcrops and hills that look a giant’s hairy back. When Kent stops along one of the beaches, at Tongue Point, I get out and—with a shock—realise I am surrounded by at least 15 New Zealand fur seals. Some look out at the robin’s-egg blue water. Others yawn as I tiptoe towards them, but begin hissing and spitting when I get too close. Two fur seals seem to be having a lovers’ tiff, smacking and flapping their flippers at each other. Another one scratches its neck and looks bored with their drama (www.sealcoast.com; tours from adults NZD125/Rs5,900, children 14 and under NZD62.5/Rs2,950).

A Kiwi Kinda Wild

A 1.5-hour drive southeast of Christchurch takes visitors to Akaroa, whose waters host the Hector’s dolphins—the world’s rarest and smallest. Don’t miss Akaroa’s other attraction: a whimsical sculpture garden with mosaic figures, the Giant’s House (inset). Photo Courtesy: Graeme Murray (dolphin), Photo by: Dennis Macdonald/ AgeFotostock/ Dinodia Photo Library (mosaic statues)

Roses bloom outside colonial homes in Rue Balguerie, and onion soup bubbles in old-timey cafés in nearby Rues. Iridescent paua shells mark some graves in the Old French Cemetery up the hill. I haven’t woken up in France, but it’s easy to forget that in the little town of Akaroa, a 1.5-hour drive away from Christchurch, South Island’s largest city.

Hewn from a volcano, Akaroa tucks charm in the little things—a walk to its lighthouse that watches over Caribbean-blue waters of the Banks Peninsula; stories of how French settlers arrived at its shores in 1840 only to find that the British had beaten them to it; or at the Giant’s House, a sculpture garden with Gaudi-like mosaics and Dali-esque whimsy.

Akaroa is catnip for another, significant reason—it is the home of the rare Hector’s dolphins, among the world’s smallest at five feet and endemic to New Zealand. When a Black Cat Cruise ship takes me and other visitors into the bay, cathedral-like coves and mystical orange-brown volcanic formations surround us. Seals scamper as our boat inches closer to the rockface. And then, as suddenly as they rose, the grey-black bodies of three Hector’s dolphins sink into the waters ahead of us. The boat stops, and a little girl beside me giggles every time the dolphins hiss and pop up like a jack-in-the-box of the sea. Our skipper points out their black dorsal fins—rounded, instead of pointed. Some cruises offer a chance to swim with Hector’s dolphins too (blackcat.co.nz; cruise NZD85/Rs4,015, children 5-15 NZD35/Rs1,650).

Essentials

Flights between Delhi or Mumbai and New Zealand’s capital, Wellington—or Christchurch in South Island—require at least one layover in a gateway cities such as Sydney or Singapore. Dunedin is connected to Christchurch by regular domestic flights and two buses a day (6 hr; www.intercity.co.nz). Self-drive is the most popular way to travel within New Zealand. Indian travellers can apply for a New Zealand visa online (www.immigration.govt.nz). A month-long visa costs NZD246/Rs11,435 and is processed within 28 working days.

  • Kareena Gianani is Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.

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