South Canterbury’s flat plains, flanked by the dramatic peaks of the Southern Alps, stretch in a colourful patchwork of fields south to Timaru, the urban heart of the Central South Island. A lively, colourful town with a striking piazza overlooking Caroline Bay, Timaru has preserved much of its historical heritage in a collection of Edwardian and bluestone buildings, local museum treasures, and Maori rock art found in caves nearby. Further south, in Oamaru, a legacy in limestone awaits and the town’s wonderful Victorian architecture – from banks to basilicas – is a rare sight to behold. Oamaru is home to a large colony of blue penguins and in Dunedin, where eco-tourism activities abound, visitors can get more than a glimpse of their yellow-eyed cousins. We spend three days exploring the route from Christchurch to Dunedin. We take a historic train ride aboard the world’s only Model T Ford Railcar, and sample classic slices of kiwiana before Bob begins training for a tramp. We explore Oamaru by foot; learn all about little blue penguins; and spy on ‘Paul’ as he squats atop a large pearly white egg.
“Well,” says Bob, as we leave Christchurch airport where we’ve kicked off the day with an early morning visit to the Antarctic Centre, “those explorers are hardy types but I bet they love those Hägglunds!”
Rather taken with our simulated ride at the centre, he continues to relive the experience as we leave town and drive south on SH1 across the southern Canterbury plains to Ashburton and on to Temuka, a small town whose famous pottery has made its way into most NZ homes. At the Temuka Pottery Factory Shop we check out the stylish hand decorated terracotta pottery and enjoy an early lunch at its airy café.
Further south, in Timaru, we’re greeted by a striking piazza overlooking Caroline Bay’s popular sandy beach and fairgrounds. A flight of stairs cascade down to the bay but we continue along the main street past several fine local bluestone and Edwardian buildings to the information centre housed inside the historic Landing Service Building. Here we decide to spend the afternoon in Pleasant Point, a 15-minute drive inland, after exploring the highlights of Timaru.
Bob humours me with a walk through the Trevor Griffiths Rose Garden where we lose ourselves in the heady fragrance of 529 named old rose varieties, and then we explore Aigantighe Art Gallery’s amazing exhibits of New Zealand art and sculpture.
At Pleasant Point I agree, somewhat reluctantly, to accompany Bob on a trip down memory lane aboard the world’s only Model T Ford Railcar. It turns out to be great fun, but I tune out as Bob discusses the minute details of the restoration process with our friendly driver. We disembark at Keanes Crossing, where we’re lead through a museum whose highlights include a Steam Locomotive AB699, a Steam Locomotive D16 (circa 1878), and NZ’s only birdcage carriage, with pleated upholstery and a handcrafted kauri interior.
While Bob pores over beautifully restored engines and equipment, I wait it out in the Old Time Movie Theatre watching fascinating historical footage.
Finally I track Bob down. He’s outside caressing the Model T. “Well,” I say, “I’m ready for a custard square.”
“A what?” says Bob distractedly.
“Flaky pastry, creamy custard, lashings of icing,” I say offhandedly. Vintage engine abruptly abandoned, Bob propels me back into the railcar. At ‘The Tearooms’ in Denheath House, Pleasant Point, we order tea and custard squares. This classic slice of kiwiana originated here and I feel truly patriotic tucking into my eight centimetre high tower of flaky golden pastry and fluffy melt-in-your-mouth filling, topped off with the creamiest icing.
“Oh my,” says Bob, “heaven on a plate!”
Replete we visit modern-day blacksmith, Gareth James, at the Artisan Forge, then drive inland to Raincliff Reserve to admire Maori Rock Art on limestone overhangs. We return to Pleasant Point via Upper Waitohi and the memorial to pioneer aviator and inventor, Richard Pearse, who once made his home here. It’s claimed that he flew using power before the Wright brothers, in 1903.
“Never!” exclaims Bob, triggering a debate that lasts all the way back to Timaru where we relax at a café in the piazza and watch the sunset over the mountains. “Richard Pearse…well I don’t know,” concludes Bob as we finish our desserts, “But that Model T was something else!”
I awake to find Bob gone. He returns a little later looking sweaty but decidedly pleased and announces that he’s been ‘jogging’ at Caroline Bay.
“I’m thinking about hiking the Kepler Track,” he says, much to my amazement, “but I’ve only got a couple of weeks or so to get fit!”
Privately I have my doubts about the wisdom of a strenuous three to four day tramp, but who am I to judge? “Great goal,” I say encouragingly, as we pack our bags and leave for Oamaru. En route we make a detour to Waimate, the strawberry capital of the south, where large brush wallabies roam in Hunters Hills behind town. We enjoy coffee and berry muffins at Wildberry Café then, with the delicious aroma of freshly baked wallaby pies wafting on the breeze, pop into Enkledoovery Korna where Bob cuddles a tame wallaby and poses for a photo.
“Aren’t wallabies Australian natives?” he asks, as we drive away. I explain how they - along with the pesky possum - were unwittingly introduced to New Zealand.
A short time later we arrive in Oamaru, which has the largest collection of protected heritage buildings in NZ. Crafted from a creamy-textured local limestone known as Oamaru Stone, these gorgeous Victorian buildings with their huge columns and extensive ornamentation were designed by the finest architects of their time.
We head straight for the Harbour and Tyne Historical Precinct, reputed to be the only intact Victorian harbour in NZ, where there’s a curved wooden wharf. We watch craftsmen sculpt Oamaru stone, then drop in to sample a cheese platter at Whitestone Cheese before (in the interests of Bob’s fitness regime) setting off on a self-guided walking tour of the town.
We hike up the hill to the late nineteenth century St Patrick’s Basilica, with its coffered renaissance ceiling and an impressive dome over the sanctuary, then continue on to 56 Eden St where Janet Frame lived for 14 years. A number of extracts from her earlier manuscripts can be seen in Oamaru. We admire the magnificent trees and flower beds in the 1876 gardens, and relax at the Italian marble fountain. A stroll along the train track takes us back to Tees Street, home of St Luke’s Anglican Church (1866), the former Post Office building (1883), the North Otago Museum (1882) and the old Courthouse built in 1882-3.
“I’m ready for a beer,” Bob declares, so we relax over a cold Speights in the Criterion Hotel’s olde-worlde bar and dine upon their specialty pies – sausage meat with fillings of cheese, tomato or mushroom. Earlier in the day we booked a blue penguin tour, so after dinner we follow the waterfront past shag-smothered piers and the Red Sheds’ craft displays to the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. The evening begins with a behind-the-scenes view and history of the colony, then we watch in the fading light as a hundred or so birds ride in on the waves, awkwardly right themselves, then waddle up the stony beach. At the top they stop to preen, then with an unconcerned air continue their ungainly gait past where we’re seated and return to their cliff-side homes. “Let’s go spot their yellow-eyed cousins tomorrow at sunrise,” says Bob, elated, “I’ll walk and you can follow me in the car.”
Next morning, true to his word, there’s no sign of Bob except a note on the table. I load our bags and drive to the top of a steep hill where I spot Bob doing stretching exercises.
I pull up alongside and he hops in gratefully.
A little further along is the Bushy Beach Penguin Colony, where we huddle together in the Dept. of Conservation hide with cameras at the ready.
Suddenly a penguin pops out of the grassy bank above the beach and lands on the sand. Further up the beach another follows suit, and they both waddle to the sea in unison.
“Their eyes are extraordinary,” says Bob, zooming in, “but I’d like to see them closer.”
When no other penguins appear, we walk back to the car and head south towards Dunedin. Thirty-five minutes later we arrive in the tiny fishing village of Moeraki and park by the jetty, outside a popular café called Fleur’s Place. We set off briskly along the beach to the Moeraki Boulders, accompanied en route by a mischievous pod of common dolphins.
After marvelling at the perfect roundness of the large boulders, we head back to Fleur’s where we have some deliciously fresh scallops and Thai fish cakes before driving south along picturesque Katiki Beach and on through Palmerston, which gleams with fresh paint.
As the sun dips low in the sky and the landscape changes to ranges and deep forested valleys, we descend into Dunedin. A wealth of eco-activities await but our first port of call is Penguin Place, where Howard McGrouther leads us through an intricate network of burrows in the dunes to large cavern-like hides. Bob clicks off round after round as a penguin known as ‘Paul’ carefully shuffles his white belly over a huge pearly egg until it disappears from view.
“Unforgettable,” Bob whispers. “It’s absolutely unforgettable.”