Having arrived in Dunedin after nightfall on a Wednesday and with plans to depart for Invercargill early Friday morning, I was left with a lone full day to blitz my way through the city and blitz I did. A friend of a friend, Tim, was letting me crash at his flat during my stay, and even drove me around the city my first night and up into the hills for some spectacular almost-aerial views. But I’d forgotten how strangely exhausted hours upon hours of driving can leave you, so after some fish korma (actually not as weird as it sounds), boysenberry ice cream, and half of The Karate Kid, it was time for some sleep. There’s nothing like being able to see your breath in your bedroom to reassure you that, no, you’re not going crazy…it is cold in here.
I woke up Thursday only slightly affected with hypothermia and headed into town. I’m not used to traveling with a car, so the first order of the day was finding a parking garage for a couple of hours so I could explore the city on foot. With that taken care of, I made a brief stop into an internet café, where a malfunctioning computer system meant I only had to pay a dollar (score!) before properly taking in the city.
Next to Christchurch, Dunedin is the second largest city on the South Island, its population coming in at a little under 120,000. With the third largest, Nelson, registering at 58,700, it gives you some idea of the jump in size and significance of Dunedin – New Zealand’s “first great city” as many claim. The sky was clear and blue, the sun bright, and only a few clouds that made for an excellent backdrop against the stunning Victorian and Edwardian architecture. At the heart of Dunedin is the Octagon, a central square of sorts, except obviously not, with cafés, restaurants, pubs and bars all clustered around its eight sides, as well as some of the more prominent buildings of the city – St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Regent Theatre, the Public Art Gallery, and the Dunedin Railway Station not too far off. I had a look inside at the mosaic tiled floor of the booking hall, where groups of people – mostly Asian tourists – waited to board the Taieri Gorge Railway.
From there, it was on to the Otago Settlers Museum, which aptly describes itself as a social history museum, to build on my basic knowledge that Dunedin and the surrounding areas in the Otago region were settled largely by Scottish immigrants. Indeed, in 1844, Frederick Tuckett, a surveyor remembered for saying, “If there is a good locale for a settlement in this island, I mean to have it” (and I can’t think of a better attitude to start out with!), first went in search for a good site for New Edinburgh. In 1845, plans continued with help from the Association of Lay Members of the Free Church of Scotland, and by 1848 the settlers had officially arrived…but weren’t greeted by much, so it seems. Apparently those in charge of preparations weren’t given adequate notice to the arrival of the ships, so the women and children actually stayed on board for a while until the men could hastily throw together two sets of barracks. They should be praised for their adherence to morals throughout the ordeal, though, as in one row of barracks, married couples stayed in the middle while single men and women were kept at either end. We wouldn’t want things getting out of hand, of course, after four restless months on a ship.
Just as the founders of Christchurch clung closely to their English roots, those responsible for settling Dunedin did the same. The name of the city comes from Dun Eideann, the Scottish Gaelic wood for Edinburgh – and on my part, I’m glad they went with something a little less obvious than New Edinburgh, because we all know the world is already filled with enough New York’s and New Jersey’s. The city’s surveyor, Charles Kettle, made a huge effort to replicate a similar street lay-out and feel to Dunedin as to that found in Edinburgh, even using many of the same street names. In fact, over 50% of Dunedin’s 78 suburbs have names found in Scotland or the British Isles.
The museum also featured a well-done exhibit titled “Across the Ocean Waves: Otago Immigration in the Age of Sail.” Besides a re-creation of the steerage quarters on an immigration ship and video clips highlighting the stories and lives of settlers (but I won’t highlight their acting…), the exhibit really made it clear as to the sacrifice these settlers made. In the nineteenth century, Alexander Hume penned “The Scottish Emigrant’s Farewell”:
Nae mair I’ll climb the Pentland’s steep,
Nor wander by the Esk’s clear river,
I seek a home far o’er the deep,
My native land, farewell forever.
It made me incredibly grateful for the advancements in transportation since the four-month journey they used to take, that even while my flight may still cost a thousand or two, I can do what I’m doing, experiencing life in a foreign country, without the sense of permanence the Scottish settlers must’ve felt as they departed for New Zealand.
Besides feeling nostalgic in the settlers’ exhibit and getting to know Josephine, the world’s first double-ended locomotive that now finds its home in the museum, I have to say my favorite part was found in Toytown, featuring the “toys and games of Yesteryear.” There were two puzzles – the Puzzle of Britain, “One puzzle no Nazi can solve!” and the Puzzle of Europe, “The Greatest Jig-Saw Problem of the Age”:
The Nazis have battered their crooked sign into the face of Europe, shattering nearly all of it – except Britain. The task that lies before us is that, whatever the cost, we must – PUT EUROPE TOGETHER AGAIN!
Maybe it’s that World War II is already my favorite period in history, or just that I’ve never seen a product so brazenly defiant and yet so comical in its rallying of the wartime spirit, but I loved them. Do you ever feel like you walk out of museums like that remembering the totally wrong thing? Like you’ve missed the point? Despite excellent presentations on the history and culture of the region, it will be those two puzzles that stay in my memory the longest, no doubt. Well done, Candace, well done!
I wasn’t much better in the Otago Museum. By this point, the sun had tragically disappeared, the wind and cold had picked up, and I was honestly just looking forward to the mocha I planned on treating myself to in the museum café once I was done. But I did spent some time in the “Southern Land, Southern People” exhibit, which showcased the ‘southern character’ of those forced to deal with the climate and landscape of the Otago region and how it’s shaped them. I was surprised to see their ‘southern hospitality’ mentioned as well, as for me, coming from the American South, that phrase conjures up images of iced tea and pecan pie (pronounced pee-can, of course, none of this pe-cahn business), and green bean casserole. But it just goes to show you the different forms it can take around the world.
The exhibit also discussed Dunedin’s rise in commercial influence in the late 1800s with the gold rush and growing popularity of sheep farming. So much so, that its growth in power meant Dunedin was the first city in New Zealand to have public transport, a public art gallery, botanic gardens, a daily newspaper, street gas lighting, a university and a girls’ secondary school. Were they busy or what?
My museum quota finally complete for the day, I held onto every drop of warmth that I could from the mocha before a brisk walk through the Dunedin Public Gardens, which surprisingly contained a plant collection from the Southern tip of Africa and a small Japanese landscape celebrating Dunedin’s Sister City relationship with Otaru, Japan. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about public gardens in New Zealand, it’s that you never know what you’ll stumble upon. While in London, the parks are flat, serenely straightforward, and perhaps pristinely predictable, the parks I’ve seen down under tend to have a bit of an edge to them, more of a taste of the exotic – something I can most definitely appreciate.
I hadn’t a minute to spare by this point – already half past three and I’d yet to venture onto the Otago Peninsula, home to Glenfalloch Gardens, an albatross colony, the pyramids (no, not what you’re thinking…), and Larnarch Castle – New Zealand’s only castle – so I had no excuse to miss it! They’d sneakily arranged the gate entry system so that you couldn’t even drive up to the castle without paying at least ten dollars for a gardens pass. Which I did, and it came with a free cup of coffee or tea as an apology for the ballroom being temporarily closed. Apology gladly accepted, as my particular pass wouldn’t allow me access to the room in the first place. I had a quick run of the gardens, not having enough time to follow the Native Plant Trail brochure I’d been given, and saw what I could of the castle’s interior through the locked front door. Construction began in 1871, funded by a certain William Larnarch – banker and financier extraordinaire as well as Minister of the Crown – who also happened to put a bullet through his own head while in Parliament. Maybe that’s what lent the whole pace a quite eerily feel, from the Alice-in-Wonderland-esque statues of miniature kings and queens throughout the gardens to the heavy fog shrouding the castle in its very appropriate veil of mystery.
The fog continued to hang over the landscape as I left the Castle and drove around the rest of the peninsula, resting on top of the hills that rose from the harbor. I’ve never been to Scotland, but imagine it not looking too different from the Otago Peninsula that day. Misty hills, clusters of dark green shrubs and trees, and leaning wooden fences winding through open pastures. Sunlight and blue skies tend to exhilarate me, but there was such an aura of melancholy about the vaporous peninsula, one that I reveled in as my car traced along the narrow gravel roads.
Indeed, the hills were evidence alone I had finally left the Canterbury Plains, and if that wasn’t enough, Dunedin boasts of having the world’s steepest street – Baldwin Street. When you see it in person, your first reaction is kind of like, “That’s it?” similar to viewing the Pyramids of Giza, the Eiffel Tower, or other famed landmarks for the first time. “This is what all the fuss is about?” you find yourself asking. My first night in Dunedin, my host/connection/new friend Tim took me up the street in his car and told me we had to go at least 40 km/hour or risk the front of the car actually flipping over and sending us into a steady stream of somersaults down the hill. With nightmarish visions of a death of staggering proportions, Baldwin Street immediately earned my respect, even more when Tim’s car shut off on us when we’d almost reached the top. So I decided to return to the attraction my last morning in the city; partly because I didn’t have my camera with me the first time and, as I like to say, when I travel no stone goes unphotographed; and partly to purchase an official certificate proving that I did indeed scale the heights of Baldwin Street. I even paid the two extra dollars to have it laminated and everything (it was raining, after all), so don’t say I’m not legit.
And with that, I was called further south, turned my car towards State Highway One, and carried on…