I live in Canada, so the further north I go, the colder it gets. Summer lingers from June until September. Wind that blows from the south is warm. So, when I found myself profoundly shivering on a cliff on the Otago Peninsula (at the very south of New Zealand’s South Island) in late July, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why I was chilly.
“Well, there’s your problem” said the local man I was chatting with. “The wind is from the south!” He pointed grandly out towards the water. “It’s coming straight at us from Antarctica!”
No wonder I was cold.
Where was I?
The Otago Peninsula sticks out of southeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island, right at the mouth of the Otago Harbour by Dunedin. It is known as the wildlife capital of the country, and it’s hilly, absolutely windswept and beautiful. There are lots of places to go hiking or tramping, and the Otago Harbour side is more sheltered and warm than the outer coast of the Peninsula.
Two of the best places to hike are up the cliffs of Lovers’ Leap and The Chasm, although I strongly suggest you do not take that first one too literally. The cliffs are roughly 250 metres high.
Visit the penguins
The Otago Peninsula is home to all kinds of one-of-a-kind wildlife, and that’s why I was shivering on a cliff. I had come to visit penguins and there is a large colony of yellow-eyed penguins that make their nests in the tall grasses by the beach in Sandfly Bay. Above the beach, there is a free public hide, where you can sit and watch without the penguins seeing you.
This is critical, because penguins are not stupid. They are as fast as bullets in the water, and they disappear when they’re in the grasses, but as they waddle across the sandy beach, they are fair game. So, the penguins hang out in the water for a little bit, checking everything out before they come ashore, and if they see anything untoward (such as a bunch of tourists), they won’t get out of the water.
Take a tour
I was on the Otago with a small tour group that I booked in Dunedin. It was wonderful to visit the peninsula with a local guide who knew all the ins and outs of wildlife viewing, as well as which way to find Antarctica. Our guide also took us to visit a local penguin shelter where they rescue wild penguins in distress, nurse them back to health and release them back into the wild.
There, I was able to see some of the native Blue Penguins (they are actually blue!). I also got to meet a domesticated penguin named Jack who could never go back into the wild as he had been around humans too long. He also really liked having his tummy scratched.
Meet the albatross
Right at the entrance to Otago Harbour is a place called Taiaroa Head, which is the world’s only breeding colony of albatross found anywhere near people. For two years at a time, albatross circumnavigate Antarctica, landing on the icy waters to fish for food, and then using the power of their massive wingspan to take off again. They come back to Taiaroa Head only to breed, meeting up with the same partner every year to perform their almost comic mating displays.
This is your only chance in the world to see these incredible birds, and if you’re lucky, their enormous grey downy chicks (which I felt resembled feathery bean-bag chairs).
Visit a castle
The Otago Peninsula is also home to New Zealand’s only castle. Built in the late 1800s, Larnach Castle is a fairly standard castle. There are magnificent views from the grounds, looking down more than 300 metres to the crashing waves below. There is also a suitably tragic backstory, full of tales of untimely death, bankruptcy and suicide.
More importantly, there is a licensed café which serves a lovely pavlova for a mid-afternoon treat. (New Zealanders are mad for their pavlova).
So, what do you think would be the best part of a visit here to the Otago Peninsula? Crouching in a penguin blind? Tramping up a cliff? Or enjoying a tasty dessert in a possibly haunted castle?