Orokonui Ecosanctuary – a home for the homeless

These birds, insects and fish have all found a haven here away from predators, safe behind a multi-million dollar pest-proof fence. There is the native New Zealand reptile, the tuatara, which although resembling a lizard is apparently something called a Sphenodontia, along with families of kaka. The extremely rare jewelled geckos are kept well away from any prying eyes with their minds on lunch. Robins and saddlebacks have also been relocated here, along with an ever-increasing range of other creatures who once called this part of the South Island home.

Orokonui Ecosanctuary is also home to New Zealand’s tallest tree which you may be surprised to learn is not a native but rather an Australian eucalypt. But trying to pick it out from among all the other similarly tall gum trees is nearly impossible.

The entire perimeter of the Ecosanctuary is surrounded by an 8.7km fence, robustly built to keep out unwanted rodents, possums and other predators that feed on our native flora and fauna. This has made it the only place in the South Island where native birds, animals and insects can live a life safe from predators. They are free to fly, feed, mate and nest wherever they wish, exactly as they would in the wild.
The Ecosanctuary is open to visitors from 9.30am to 4.30pm daily except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. There are twice-daily guided tours ($38 for adults, $19 for children), or you can potter about on your own ($15 adults, $7.50 children. There are also family concessions for guided and unguided tours.). The visitor centre has a gift shop and café, plus numerous static and audio-visual displays of the local residents, making it an excellent educational day out for children.

Getting to the Orokonui Ecosanctuary is easy. You can come by car over the hill from Port Chalmers or from Dunedin via the Northern Motorway and Waitati. Or take the Orokonui Express operated by Taieri Gorge Railways, a half-day train excursion from Dunedin, and enjoy the stunning coastal scenery.

Words and pictures by Lynnaire Johnston.

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Larnach Castle - folly or farsighted?

Larnach Castle Exterior

Built in 1871 by banker and Minister of the Crown William Larnach for his first wife, Larnach Castle lies in a remote spot high above the Otago Peninsula. Despite their wealth and position in society, the Larnach family’s life was one of never-ending tragedy, and eventually the castle fell into disrepair.

However, over the last three decades it has been restored to its original condition and the 35 acres of gardens and grounds now attract plant enthusiasts and visitors from around the world.

Tiny in stature compared with European castles, Larnach Castle nevertheless manages to recapture life as it was in the late 19th century when servants came and went via hidden stairs and doors. Today, the rooms are laid out much as they were in early times, with enormous pieces of antique furniture and clothes of the era beautifully displayed.

William Larnach added a ballroom to the castle to celebrate his daughter’s 21st birthday and today this is both a licensed café and used for special events.

No visit to the castle is complete without a tour of the grounds. When the current owners took over the property many of the original gardens had disappeared. Gradually they have been unearthed and replanted, so that they are now a joy to wander through, no matter what the season – although the early spring trilliums are a must-see.

The castle’s former stables and coach house have been turned into boutique lodge accommodation. The individually decorated theme rooms have spectacular views over Otago Harbour. Guests can breakfast in the historic stables, and eat dinner in the castle dining room to get a taste of what upper crust colonial life would have been like.

When visitors first arrive, they are able to watch a short audio-visual presentation about the castle’s history and its tragedies. This is an ideal way to learn some of the castle’s secrets, and sets the scene for a tour of the castle above.

Visitors may choose between a self-guided tour of the castle, which includes the tower, café, ballroom, gift shop, gardens, grounds, stables and outbuildings, or entry to the gardens which includes the grounds, stable, outbuildings, café and ballroom.

Larnach Castle is open daily except Christmas Day from 9am to 5pm.

Words and photos by Lynnaire Johnston

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Catlins Caves and Shipwrecks

It might not be as tall as Auckland’s Sky Tower, and it might not dominate the skyline in the same way but the biggest tourist attraction in the Catlins area of Otago still dwarfs those visiting it.

But the Cathedral Caves are a little selective about when you can visit. For most of the day the caves are unreachable; the tide laps several feet up their walls. But for a couple of hours each side of low tide they can be safely navigated by anyone keen enough to make the 15-minute trek through the bush.

Catlins Caves

Is it worth it? Certainly. Especially if you’re interested in the real New Zealand rather than the manmade New Zealand. And Catlins is nothing if not natural.

Despite being at the bottom of the South Island, between Balclutha and Invercargill, it’s not terribly difficult to get to. It’s only a couple of hours south of the city and a tour of the entire area can be easily accomplished in a long weekend.

A word of warning though. Catlins is best appreciated by those who love native bush and wildlife, and who don’t mind cafes being few and far between. That’s not to say the area is devoid of such amenities; it isn’t. There is an excellent restaurant in the small seaside township of Kaka Point, and an eco complex near the Cathedral Caves where the Whistling Frog restaurant specialises in lamb from the owner’s farm. There was also good coffee to be had at Niagra Café, near Curio Bay.

The Catlins coast is dotted with tiny towns, deserted sandy beaches, and waterfalls galore. In other words, New Zealand at its finest but it does lack the grandeur and majesty of the South Island’s tourist mainstay – mountains and lakes. Still, there are walking tracks aplenty and the peace and quiet of the native bush will rejuvenate your soul.

For lovers of history, the area offers tales of gruesome shipwrecks and the hardships endured by the early settlers and their families during the building of railway lines and roads two centuries back. The Owaka Museum is the best place to learn about these as it’s packed with historical artifacts and displays on the tribulations of battling the elements in order to tame the land.

Words and photos by Lynnaire Johnston

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Moeraki gets the Seal of approval

It is a sunny summer afternoon and I am sipping a glass of chilled Viognier on the upstairs balcony at Fleur’s Place, a seaside restaurant in the fishing village of Moeraki, north Otago. The rustic-style restaurant has been built on a promontory, the open sea on one side, a bay filled with fishing boats on the other. Being my favourite eating spot in the entire region, I always bring guests here to share the experience.

We are just tucking into an enormous seafood platter containing a seemingly infinite variety of fish and crustaceans when there is a sudden commotion. All the other al fresco diners rush to one side of the deck, laughing and pointing down into the water. There below, swimming about completely unconcerned about the furore he’s causing, is a large seal, clearly hunting for lunch. He flippers gently in and around the jetty until a kitchen hand arrives with a pail of fish bodies which he deposits unceremoniously into the water. If you’ve seen Jaws, then you know how the water seethes and writhes when dinner is served to large fish, or in this case mammal. Lunch devoured, our friendly seal glides quietly away into the depths, and the diners return to their own abandoned meals.

When Fleur Sullivan, the owner, appears next, we ask whether such Sunday afternoon entertainment is de rigeur. The seal, she tells us, is a regular visitor, not much loved by the local fishermen who see him as competition. Fleur explains that the local lighthouse – just a 10-minute drive away – is home to large number of “her” seal’s extended family and is worth a visit. We decide it sounds the perfect place to walk off our lunch.

What delights most about Fleur’s is its complete antithesis of urban chic. Here, local fishermen wander in looking for a beer still wearing their gumboots and the décor is sufficiently different to defy classification but features much well-seasoned wood, and in the bathroom, a huge mirror surrounded by shells. An old coal range decorated with ancient pots provides warmth in winter, while fishing boats, nets and floats dotted about outside make clear the marine nature of this establishment. Because, make no mistake, Fleur’s is all about seafood. Caught locally – often just this morning – the restaurant’s fish dishes are original, interesting and sufficiently generous to be excellent value for money. Herbs and vegetables are also locally sourced from organic gardens, where possible. (To know more about Fleur’s visit http://www.fleursplace.com)

Moeraki is off the beaten track, difficult to find unless you know the area, which is typical of many Otago attractions. When people think of Dunedin they think Larnach Castle, the Taeiri Gorge Railway, Speights Brewery and the albatross colony. All worth visiting of course, but many visitors don’t venture far from the city, which is a pity, because there is a great deal more to see.

But back to our sunny summer afternoon. Replete from Fleur’s sumptuous deserts, and following her directions, we negotiate the gravel road to Katiki Point Lighthouse. Set on the Moeraki Peninsula headland with 360-degree views, the lighthouse has been keeping watch for 130 years, albeit not terribly successfully. The point has a long history of shipwrecks, as has the entire Otago coast, and the cargo left behind from one, is reputed to have turned into the famous Moeraki Boulders, a little up the coast.

The cliffs surrounding the lighthouse are home to a kindergarten of seals cavorting among the rocks and rockpools while Mum and Dad bring home the bacon, family patriarchs and matriarchs stretch out in the sun just metres from the path blithely ignoring inquisitive tourists, and a colony of the endangered yellow-eyed penguins nesting in crevices among the vegetation. A Department of Conservation hide has been erected just above one of the bays from which it is possible to see the penguins scurrying backwards and forwards – if your timing is right. Just on dusk is the best time to see these little fellows. The path along the top of the headland is suitable for most people, but the track down to the penguins is a steep climb and not for the faint of heart. City heels are better left behind in favour of sensible walking shoes and, because Otago weather can be as changeable, it’s advisable to tote along a jacket. The wind can be a little nippy hereabouts. Aside from the local fauna, the area is of historic significance. A Maori pa once graced the far end of the headland, perhaps as far back as the 13th century and looking carefully it’s possible to still see the many well-defined terraces (30 in all) on 12 different levels that the kaik (village) was built on.

Moeraki and its surrounds is a pleasant 45-minute drive on near-deserted roads from Dunedin.

.. Words and photos Lynnaire Johnston ..

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