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Escape to Otago

For weeks I was stuck in a triangle of home, work, and the supermarket. When New Zealand’s Government declared a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, I continued to work through as an essential worker, but outwith my work hours, like the rest of the country, I left home only to do a weekly shop or to go for a brief walk or bike ride around my neighbourhood. It was a strange 5 weeks. At first, we were granted movement within our region, and I was quick to include the coast in my off-day wanderings, enjoying the sunshine on New Brighton beach, and heading up onto the Port Hills to enjoy the views over Lyttelton Harbour. I even managed to find a trail that I hadn’t walked before. Being autumn, the light was low and it created a beautiful pale blue colour in the water and the sky. It was a novelty to see some wildlife too.

 

By mid-May, we were allowed to travel out of our region, and I was quick to book an Air BnB in Oamaru, Otago. A 3hr drive away, it was enough of an adventure for a weekend away without feeling like we were flouting any rules, and it felt great to get away from what had felt like a box for the last few months. The hillside to the west of Oamaru was creating a long shadow over the town when we arrived, and there was a late autumn chill in the air. We took a walk down to the harbour which still had some sunlight on it, before wandering through the deserted streets of the historic precinct nearby. As the sun set, the sky turned through pinks and purples before darkness fell.

 

For the first time in months, we went out for dinner. 15mins north of Oamaru is Riverstone Kitchen, a lovely little restaurant/cafe in the complex in front of Riverstone Castle, one of only 2 castles in New Zealand (and being Scottish, I use the term ‘castle’ here loosely). Despite the socially-distanced table placements and the lack of tourists, it felt almost normal to be eating out for dinner on a Saturday night.

The sun was shining the next morning but there was no doubting the time of year with the temperature staying low. We had a lovely view over the harbour from the balcony of the Air Bnb but there wasn’t going to be any sitting out on it that late in the season. We found a spot for breakfast in the historic precinct before jumping in the car and heading down the coast. Otago has some great wildlife viewing spots and I’m always keen to seek them out whenever I have enough time in this region. About 40mins south of Oamaru is the turnoff for Shag Point, a small community of baches hugging the coastline where it juts out into the Pacific Ocean. Where the road ends is a lookout and fur seal colony.

You can often smell fur seals before you see them. Most of them were fast asleep on the rocks so there wasn’t a lot of activity to draw attention. They stand out against the rocks better when they’re still wet from the ocean, but when they dry off they go pale and can often be overlooked from a distance when they’re snoozing and still. But as we walked around the coast, there were plenty to see, and the sea was calm by our sides, gently swelling to and from the rocks nearby. As my gaze moved offshore to some gulls and shags that were draped across some outlying rocks, I spotted some people fishing from a dinghy. It felt like a normal weekend day in New Zealand.

One of Otago’s most known attractions is Moeraki Boulders, a geological anomaly where perfectly spherical boulders emerge from the cliffs under the erosive powers of wind and sea. I remember the first time I visited them in 2012 there were certainly a few other people around, but in the years that followed, like elsewhere in the country, tourism numbers had soared to levels that in my opinion, were a detriment to many sites like this one. The tourism sector has taken a big hit thanks to the pandemic and many people have lost their livelihoods. It is a sad time for many, but I have to admit that I haven’t missed the crowds at all. As much as I know that the economy needs those foreign dollars, I’m not looking forward to see the influx return. We certainly didn’t have the place to ourselves on this day, but it was respectably quiet and I was able to enjoy exploring the boulders and marvelling how they’d changed in the 8 years since I’d first visited.

 

The boulders are quite concentrated in one area of the beach, but the beach itself has a lovely prospect out onto the Pacific Ocean and it’s a nice place to take a stroll even without the boulders. At the southern end the coast juts out at Moeraki, a small settlement with a fishing hub, a plethora of holiday baches, and a great pub to stop for a meal. It’s also where the road cuts off to Katiki Point where a lighthouse stands proudly at the top of a spit of a land jutting south. The lighthouse is not open to the public, but it marks the start of a track down to Katiki Point Reserve which is a must visit in the hours leading up to sunset. The gate closes and is locked at a set time each day, so it’s important to check this in advance, but the reason for going is the guaranteed sightings of hoiho, the yellow-eyed penguin, one of the rarest penguin species in the world and endemic to New Zealand.

The track follows the spit of land, remaining on its ridge, so you look down on the beach where the penguins come ashore. I’ve seen hoiho in several spots in Otago, but this is the closest I’ve been to them. A fence does separate the track from where the penguins are but that didn’t stop them jumping up the hillside to come closer to the band of people that were sitting on the slope watching them with glee. Further along the spit, the penguins were replaced by fur seals, gulls and shags. One or two fur seals seemed to share the penguins’ spot, but otherwise there did seem to be quite segregated areas for the different species to haul up out of the sea. Where they did overlap, there was often a loud bit of drama as the young seals chased the penguins or the penguins tried to stand up to the fur seals. Even just watching the interactions between the various penguins was like watching a soap opera. I could have stayed there till darkness, but the gate locking meant we all eventually had to head back to the car park and leave them to their own lives.

 

There was still enough daylight on our return to Oamaru that we took a walk along the perimeter of Friendly Bay past Sumpter Wharf. With the lowering of the sun ahead of sunset, the wharf was crammed full of spotted shags and gulls getting settled to roost for the night. It was incredible how many of them there were and there was a constant influx and occasional outflux of birds joining and leaving the throng. Like the night before, the sky turned pink and purple as sunset became dusk signalling time to go and grab some dinner.

 

I have to admit that one of my favourite things about not working Mondays is seeing most other people head into work when I know I don’t have to. We grabbed breakfast at a cafe not far from where we had stayed, and I smiled when I was presented with my coffee which had the words Good Morning on it written in chocolate syrup. I might not have needed to go to work, but we still had to head back to Christchurch that day. I wasn’t in charge of driving but I was allowed to dictate the route home, so rather than just heading straight up State Highway 1 and being home in a matter of hours, I chose to direct us on a detour to Elephant Rocks which I had discovered on a weekend away in the Waitaki Valley the previous autumn.

It was a bit of a convoluted route to get there, but although they don’t quite have the grandeur of Castle Hill in Canterbury, they’re still a pretty neat place to explore. On private land, they are publicly accessible but may be grazed by stock at times so there’s often a lot of dung around the place. There is also a pretty nice view across the nearby farm which is framed by some Otago hills and some taller peaks which had a light dust of snow on their tops. There is such a variety of shapes with a mixture of domes and wind-blasted exposed sides. There were a few other people there, but these rocks are so off the main roads and away from the typical tourist routes that they are quiet in comparison to their northern equivalents.

 

After snaking back and forward among them, it was time to head back to the car and start heading home. Although my favourite part of Otago is the Otago Peninsula, Oamaru and the nearby coast is a great spot for geology and wildlife. Having not stopped-off there in a long time, little did I know I’d end up passing through here again and again and again over the next 12 months.

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