DUNEDIN, July 17 — New Zealand is perfect for long, meandering road trips, especially in its scenic South Island. If driving on windswept coastal roads is your idea of a good time — it’s certainly mine — then there’s no better region to explore than the South Island’s wave-cut Otago coast that is rich in wildlife and geologically fascinating landscapes.
The very idea of a road trip is to do everything at your own pace. Drive, stop, wander, relax. Along the way, encounter boulders, fur seals, shags, seagulls, albatrosses, penguins and even Cheshire cats (no joke, but more on this later).
If you’re starting your drive from Christchurch, it takes about three hours to reach Oamaru, a small coastal town where you get to stretch your legs and refuel. You are now entering the Deep South. This is Otago land. From Oamaru it takes another half hour on State Highway 1 to get to Moeraki, famous for the eponymous boulders down on Koekohe Beach.
Now, there are boulders and there are boulders. The Moeraki Boulders definitely fall into the latter category. Large and spherical, they lie ominously on the beach, scattered everywhere as though flung there by some mythical giant in some mysterious past.
Each grey-coloured boulder can weigh up to several tonnes and reach almost two metres high. The official account for their existence is erosion by ocean waves of mudstone formed about 65 million years ago. According to Maori legend though, hundreds of years ago there was a great capsizing of the canoe Araiteuru. From it, massive gourds were washed ashore and transformed into the wonders we see today.
We definitely prefer the second, more romantic explanation.
The wildlife at Moeraki seems to be limited to one scavenging seagull too many, so if you want to witness something more extraordinary, head back to the highway. Another 10 minutes or so of driving south will bring you to the secluded Shag Point.
Many motorists and travellers skip Shag Point because of its name; they’re after a sighting of penguins or whales or fur seals. Not a common seabird like the shag. Yet it’s an open secret among locals that Shag Point is actually one of the best places to see fur seals, more so than Kaikoura in the north or the Otago Peninsula further south, due to how close you can get without disturbing the animals.
Shag Point or Matakaea (its native Maori name) began as a Ngai Tahu settlement before the coalminers arrived. Those are now in Shag Point’s distant past but its vibrant flora and fauna — from unusual species such as the snow tussock and the alpine daisy to occasional spotting of whales and dolphins – make it a haven for wildlife viewing.
The highlight, of course, are the New Zealand fur seals. The area is full of flat rocks that act as platforms to observe the activities of the seals – lolling about lazily, nursing their pups, playing in rock pools, young bulls fighting. Imagine being at cliff-top heights yet close enough to see the whiskers on the seals without distressing them. The pups are particularly cute with their big, liquid eyes.
Continue heading south on the highway. About an hour later you’ll reach the university town of Dunedin. The drive into the Scottish-influenced town, the heart of the Otago region, is an adventure in itself; you’ll go up and down some rather steep roads — but that’s part of the experience, yes?
Dunedin is a great place to spend the night before exploring more of the Otago coast. You’ll find a plethora of Victorian and Edwardian architecture around town, remnants of its Scottish heritage. Yet I would argue it is the dramatic landscapes of the Otago Peninsula — Dunedin sits at its head — that will take your breath away.
To get to the Otago Peninsula, nicknamed the Wildlife Capital of New Zealand, take Portobello Road from Dunedin. Enjoy a slow drive because you would not want to miss some of the splendid views along the 20-kilometres-long harbour; beyond Nature, there’s plenty of people-watching to be had, with joggers, cyclists and surfers galore.
The peninsula was formed from volcanic activity and has two faces: the harbour side is warm and sunny, with a unique micro-climate; the side facing the Pacific Ocean is wild and rugged. Marine wildlife can be found in abundance here: fur seals and sea elephants, Steward Island shags, penguins (both the Yellow Eyed Penguins and the Little Blue Penguins) and the graceful Royal Albatrosses.
Reach the northern tip of the peninsula and you will find the world’s only mainland royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head. Here, the Royal Albatross Centre is open to the public via an hour-long guided tour. Spot the Royal Albatrosses gliding effortlessly across the sky, with their three-metre wingspan displayed in full.
At the observatory, you may even see albatrosses incubating eggs or feeding their chicks; a pair would take turns to search for food and guard their young, sharing their parental responsibilities equally. This is not a sight you’ll see in any zoo; only in the birds’ natural habitat.
While you’re on the peninsula, another not-to-miss stop is Larnach Castle, the only castle in the entire Australasia. Built by politician William James Mudie Larnach in the 1870s, the castle has a Gothic Revival design courtesy of noted Dunedin architect R.A. Lawson. The stone used to build it came from around the world — brick from Glasgow, marble from Italy, cobblestone from Marseilles and basalt from an Otago quarry.
The real fun lies on the grounds of Larnach Castle; its gardens are well-landscaped and beautiful, and has a subtle Alice in Wonderland theme. You may spot statues of the Duchess and the Knave of Hearts from Sir John Tenniel’s 1865 drawings in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Have a game and see who is the first to uncover the secret hiding space of the Cheshire Cat. (Here’s a hint: the cat is made from Oamaru stone and grins from a rather lofty resting place...)
After a good night’s rest (or perhaps an exciting night out in Dunedin), you should be refreshed and ready for the last leg of your Otago coastal road trip. From Dunedin, it’s about 1.5 hours on State Highway 1 till you reach what is practically the southernmost tip of the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island – Nugget Point.
There is perhaps no geological formation along the Otago coast more easily identifiable than Nugget Point. From a tiny group of rocky islets, known by locals as the Nuggets (hence the name), to the steep and sharp headland that ends with a lighthouse at its peak, Nugget Point feels like the end of the known world.
The views certainly are superb. You can see the coastline in both directions as you climb up to the lighthouse, a five-minute walk that is easier than it looks. When you reach the Nugget Point Lighthouse, you can peer downwards to the rocks at a colony of fur seals. Sometimes you can spot shearwaters, spoonbills, fannets and leopard seals. Hector’s dolphins have been known to appear in these waters too.
What’s left to do after such an amazing coastal drive? The choice is stay on and enjoy the wildlife, or to turn around and start again, this time from the opposite direction. Let the winds and the sea guide you.
Royal Albatross Centre
1260 Harington Point Rd, Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula, Dunedin, New Zealand
Open September 28 - March 31: 12pm-6pm and April 1 - September 27: 10:30am-4pm
Guided tour: Adult NZD50 (RM146); child NZD15 (RM44)
145 Camp Rd, Otago Peninsula, Dunedin, New Zealand
Open daily 9am-7pm
Nugget Point Lighthouse
The Nuggets Rd, Ahuriri Flat, Dunedin, New Zealand