Tuesday 24th November
Papatowai beach was quite remarkable. From the campsite the short path lead down through wind sculpted trees to the side of the sandy estuary. As we ran out to the sea the early morning sun was rising up through misty haze that hovered over the breaking surf.
There were oyster catchers calling on the shore and bellbirds and tuis chiming in the forest. As the tide and the river flowed out to sea, we watched, fascinated, as a small tidal wave (presumably a bore?) surged up the estuary pushing a raft of kelp in front of it.
After breakfast we spent what was probably one of the most bizarre (but extremely enjoyable) hours of the trip so far.... The Lost Gypsy Gallery. This unique and quirky place is hard to describe without it sounding naff, which it is not. The gallery is in an old bus on the side of the road, and also in the garden and some outbuildings behind. It's all the work of one cheerful and ingenious man who is present in his workshop and happy to chat. Essentially, he gathers all manner of bits and pieces of stuff such as driftwood and shells, broken toys and domestic gadgets, electronic circuits and light bulbs, car radios and audio recordings, newspaper clippings and posters, bicycle parts and scrap metal. The materials are all used to assemble imaginative and innovative little automata and larger Heath-Robinson contraptions that we were able to play with and admire. His mail box is a large grey whale made out of corrugated tin. The path to his bus is inlaid with coloured glass and china, car badges and other bits and pieces to create a quirky mosaic. There was a train running round a track inside the bus that activated various lights and sounds. There were automata that rotated shells full of water to make a gurgling sound, or wire legs' that ran; an 'organ' whose every key and pedal operated a different sound , eg an alarm clock, a musical box, a cymbal, an electric shaver, a singing gorilla, a gramophone record playing swingtime music, a car horn..., there was a glass tube containing a whirlpool or swirling 'plug hole' of water emptying and bring dropped back into the top, and an old fashioned ladies' hair drier that you could sit underneath/inside and listen to forest birdsong.
It was a mixture of weird and wonderful pieces, some beautiful, some amusing, some vulgar, some thought provoking but all designed and built with great skill and imagination. Each one required us to press a button, turn a handle or simply stand back and marvel. Odd, entertaining and unique!
Nugget Point was our last stop in the Catlins Park. This involved a 9km drive along a winding narrow gravel track and a 40 minute walk along the path to the lighthouse. It was phenomenally windy to the point that we had to hang on to our sunglasses!
Down to our left there was a cliff covered with scrubby bush and in it was a colony of nesting Royal Spoonbills. The high winds made it difficult to hold the binoculars still enough to get a clear view but we could see enough to appreciate their hilarious hair-dos as the wind whipped up their crest feathers. Every so often one would take off and flap around the bay.
We walked on and up to the point to look out over the surf-pounded Nugget Rocks and down over Roaring Cove. Fur seals were everywhere. Sleeping in the beach and on rocks or playing in the waves. We searched the cliffs for sooty shearwaters without success.
It was time to move on to Dunedin along the Southern Scenic Route.
It was indeed scenic, following the coast for a long way and allowing views over bright blue sea with numerous 'white horses'.
The wind seemed to get stronger and stronger and the exposed road made driving difficult as it felt as if the gusts literally snatched the steering wheel. Quite alarming for driver and passenger!
We drove on through undulating farmland and a couple of fairly ordinary towns. We passed a house and garden decorated with dolls and another with teapots before joining the motorway to carry us into Dunedin.
Dunedin was built by the early settlers from Scotland in the 1880s and and was a commercial centre during the gold rush. The city is modelled on Edinburgh. We drove in along Prince's Street. The city is attractive and based on small octagonal centre, full of trees, cafes and bars, overlooked by a statue of Robert Burns.
We parked and walked. Everyone seemed to be out enjoying the afternoon sunshine. We visited the Otago Settlers Museum, pausing for a late lunch in their cafe before admiring the exhibits. It was a beautiful display of human history with great film clips, audio presentations from descendants of the settlers and all sorts of furniture, vehicles, clothing and other paraphernalia. Unfortunately there was no actual guide or time line and the exhibits did not follow any logical sequence. Nevertheless we enjoyed the mock up of the eerily dark and claustrophobic below-decks accommodation for the seafarers in their three month voyage to NZ, the worlds fastest motorbikes, the double ended steam engine and a huge slab of greenstone. And the cafe.
Next stop, the Otago peninsula, a long narrow finger of land protruding out from Dunedin and famous for its wildlife. It's geography means that it acts rather like an island and the rocky headland at its tip, Tairoa Head, is the home of the world's only mainland colony of Royal Albatross.
We drove the winding coastal road along the peninsula and arrived at Tairoa to see an albatross circling the headland.
From the observatory we were able to spot three nesting albatrosses, sitting on their single eggs, and three other 'teenage' birds preening, displaying and calling to others. Two or three others were flying around the headland, swooping low over our heads.
A few interesting facts about the Royal Albatross...
- They have a wing span of 3 metres
- They live for 30-40 yrs. The oldest recorded was 62.
- They pair for life and start breeding when they are about 8 years old.
- They spend most of their lives out at sea and only come on land to breed.
- In September the male bird arrives on land and builds a nest, the female arrives a few days later.
- Together they incubate the egg for 79 days.
- As soon as the chick has hatched, grown to about 20kg weight and taught itself to fly, the parents go back to sea, separately and stay apart until the following September.
- The chick teaches itself to fish and then goes to sea alone for 5 years.
- After 5 years it returns to the place where it hatched, as a 'teenager' and mixes with other returning 'teenagers' to find a mate.
- The two mates then separate and fly around the Southern Hemisphere at about 40 degrees south for a year or so until returning in September to start breeding.
Fascinating stuff, and fascinating birds to watch. We observed the parents on nests changing shifts and teenagers courting. We also watched a colony of Otago shags on the rocks below. A couple of Royal Spoonbills flew past too.
The soaring birds continued to entertain us as we walked back to the motor home, cameras still
poised to capture their majestic flight, and the beautiful views from the headland.
After dinner in the van on the headland, we watched the sun set over the bay between Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula.
Then it was time to dress up warm and make our way down to Pilots Beach in the dusk.
This beach is home to a colony of blue penguins. These small birds (only 40cm, compared to the yellow-eyed at 76cm and the Fiordland crested at 71cm) were declining numbers but are now protected by the local Maori landowners are are increasing in number.
We stood and watched the sea. The nearly-full moon helped to illuminate the water. A small raft of six birds appeared as black dots in the water. Two came ahead and one brave little penguin hopped out and waddled up the beach and into the sand dunes. After a long pause, the others followed.
Ten minutes or so later a second and third raft appeared and each group seemed accelerate towards the beach, swooping through the water like porpoises and tumbling out onto the sand in a crowd of 20 or 30 at a time. We saw about 100 in total. With our binoculars trained on the water, it felt rather like watching the swim section of a triathlon and trying to spot a familiar face in the seething mass of bodies in the water.
Once on the sand the blue penguins all bustled up the beach towards the rocks which they hopped and rolled and scrambled over in an ungainly fashion, before waddling on up into the sand dunes and grass, each one turning this way and that to return home to its burrow. Some burrows were underneath the platform we were standing on and we could hear them growling and grunting and squeaking to each other. It was amazing!
Following our ornithological extravaganza we retired to Madge for hot tea and decided it was time to find somewhere to sleep before tomorrow's trip inland to cycle the Otago Railway Trail. All the local campsites were closed by now and so we decided to free camp on the side of the road on the way to Middlemarch. After an anxious few miles of finding nothing but farm tracks and field gateways, we finally found 'a Tarmac or gravel area set aside for parking, that does not have a sign forbidding overnight camping', as per the freedom camping leaflet. A roadside pull in next to a forest near 'Clarks Junction' seemed to match that description. Well, not the most welcoming camp site perhaps, but we were too tired to care!