Dunedin is a wild city.
As you enter Dunedin you see hills all around – some bearing wild vegetation, some suburbs and some farmland - and you see the glistening harbour, the rugged coastline and the mighty Pacific ocean. Then as you explore Dunedin you find it contains an incredible range of natural habitats, animals and plants, from mountain-top to sea-side.
Dunedin’s human connections to nature are deep and strong.
The first Polynesian people coming here about 1,000 years ago had to adapt from tropical to cool temperate weather. The animals, plants and rocks were very different to what they had known and so they had to learn anew how to live off the bounty of land and sea. Many Maori today still have a strong affinity to nature.
When Europeans arrived about 150 years ago, they carved farmland out of native forest and modified landscape into cityscape. The young city’s first grand buildings, financed by gold, were built of rock hewn from the extinct volcanoes that formed the rugged landscape of hills, harbour, cliffs and coast from 13 to 9 million years ago.
Dunedin was the world’s first new city to have a green belt incorporated into its design. The botanic gardens were the first in New Zealand, and now are one of only five in NZ to be deemed Gardens of International Significance. There is one other in Dunedin - Larnach Castle’s gardens which have Margaret Barker’s passion project for 40 years.
NZ’s first university opened in Dunedin in 1871, teaching natural philosophy and in 1872 appointing a professor of natural science. Now Otago University is renowned for researching and teaching the life sciences – marine science, botany, zoology, geology and others.
The eco-tourism industry is one of the economic pillars of Dunedin now – with the Otago Peninsula a world-class destination and several operators helping visitors to go wild.
Taiaroa Head is the only mainland nesting colony of albatross anywhere in the world – you can walk to a hilltop observatory to see the massive Northern Royal Albatross on their nests, and you can take a short boat trip to see them and other albatross soaring on the strong winds of the Roaring 40’s.
In the scientific reserve of Taiaroa Head you can see the rare Otago shag (cormorant) on their chimney-pot nests and Spotted Shags nesting in their cliff niches.
NZ fur-seal colonies abound on the rocks and NZ sea-lions are sometimes seen on the sandy beaches – having started breeding on the mainland again only in the mid-1990s. Two species of dolphins live here including the world’s smallest, the Hector’s Dolphin, which sometimes pop up beside surfers.
Little Blue Penguins and the very rare Yellow-eyed Penguins can be seen in several places – they are very shy and easily scared, so keep your distance and keep still, or even better go with a guide. An innovative farmer installed trenches and viewing hides on his farm in the 1980’s and this has given many visitors a chance to see these unique and endangered birds up close.
Dunedin has much more for nature lovers.
Orokonui Ecosanctuary is a recent and pioneering nature refuge – a mainland “island” because its predator-proof fence has allowed the reserve to breed rare and endangered NZ species such as charismatic kaka parrots, takahe (birds of the rail family), ancient reptiles called tuatara, the famous flightless kiwi and many others.
The suburb of St Clair is a surfing mecca, but just 5 minutes’ walk from there to Second Beach reveals beautiful columnar basalt formations and cold-water bull kelp fringing the rocks.
Tunnel Beach just to the south is perhaps the city’s best known walking track, to sandstone arches and a hidden beach, but Karetai Track just to the north is a hidden jewel with incredible coastal cliff views. Allan’s Beach on Otago Peninsula is the easiest wild beach to access, with sandy and rocky coast to explore (keep your distance from penguins, fur-seals and sea-lions).
Flagstaff is a beautiful hilltop walk through sub-alpine tussock and scrub – at over 650 metres it gives you great views over the city and coast, and inland towards Central Otago. Leith Saddle has tracks into the cloud-forest. Ross Creek has walking and running tracks through city forest. Glow-worms can be seen at night up a side creek of Leith Valley.
An hour’s drive away from the Octagon near Middlemarch, you are still in Dunedin (it is about the world’s 11th biggest city by area!!) but surrounded by wild hills – real Hobbit country. The Rock and Pillar Range has fantastical rock tors, subalpine vegetation such as totara trees 100 years old but only a few centimetres high, and a few hardy creatures such as lizards, grasshoppers, and big insects called weta which freeze solid over winter and come to life in spring.
Sight-seeing done, you can also go surfing, wind-surfing, biking, hiking, yachting, rowing, fishing, hunting, photographing, or many other outdoors activities.
As with its lucky citizens, Dunedin will draw you to the wild side.