Walnut Cottage to Penguin Place

November 4, 2008 – Walnut Cottage to Penguin Place

Penguin Place Lodge
Penguin Place Lodge

We have landed on our feet once again. I write sitting in a two-star lodge with a five-star view. Two cormorants just flew by. It’s just past 5 p.m. We’ll take a penguin tour at 6:15 p.m. Perhaps by then the rain will have eased, though it’s really only a mist even now.

Our home for the night is the Penguin Place Lodge on the Otago Peninsula. Otago Harbour lies below us. Penguin Place is just above Te Rauone Beach.

At the moment we are the only occupants of the lodge. There are eight sleeping rooms, two shared toilet/shower rooms (one for ladies, one for gents), a modest but adequate kitchen, and a large living room with TV, radio/CD player, books and magazines, playing cards, a puzzle, and heat.

Since we are not carrying linens, our accommodations cost an extra $5. Total for everything for two nights? NZ $85 (less than $65Cdn)

That’s not a misprint. Penguin Place is a conservation centre. The lodge is a sideline, not the main show. The real business is penguins.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We made two other interesting stops on the drive from Walnut Cottage to Penguin Place.

Lonely Grave of a young man who died alone
Lonely Grave of a young man who died alone

To reach the first we crossed the Clutha River at Miller’s Flat. Our destination was the Lonely Graves that lie on a gravel road on the east bank of the river. The Roxburgh tourist brochure told the story of a young man whose body was found in 1865 by William Rigney, a gold miner from nearby Horseshoe Bend.

Rigney was so moved by the unidentified young man’s mysterious fate that he got permission to bury him and place a marker on his grave, “Somebody’s Darling Lies Here”. Until he died, he tended the grave. On his death in 1912 he was buried beside the unknown young man. His headstone bears the inscription, “Here lies William Rigney, the man who buried Somebody’s Darling”.

We found the graves, (Robin adds: after driving on a dirt road to the back of nowhere) along with a Historic Reserve marker that told a somewhat different story. The young man was probably Charles Alms, a young butcher who was herding cattle across the Clutha River when he was swept to his death. No one is sure who actually buried him, but Rigney and another miner put a manuka fence around it, and Rigney put up the wooden headboard.

Lonely Graves tell an urban legend that won't go away
Lonely Graves tell an urban legend that won

Rigney tried hard to set the record straight, but urban legends are stronger than mere facts. He was buried beside Somebody’s Darling and given credit in perpetuity for something he didn’t do.

The last line on the marker sums it up, “the truth shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.”

Our second stop lay between Lonely Graves and Miller’s Flat. A 15-minute walk brought us to a wooden bridge that spans the Clutha River. The Horseshoe Bend Bridge was built only reluctantly, as the community had only 72 souls at its peak.

Of course, among those souls were children, and the nearest school was on the west side of the river. Parents insisted they needed a way to cross the river so a wire was strung, with a seat halter for passengers. One adult at a time could cross. The marker didn’t say how many children.

Passage took a bit of courage, as the wire was 75 metres above the river. Apparently no engineer was involved in rigging the makeshift crossing. One end was higher than the other, which made it tough for the small fry to pull their way safely to land.

Wooden foot bridge over the Clutha
Wooden foot bridge over the Clutha
The bridge Horseshoe Bend officials finally agreed to build
The bridge Horseshoe Bend officials finally agreed to build

Irritated parents called on the town officials to build a bridge. Instead of acting right away, they made an inspection tour. Of course, not one of the officials had the courage to launch himself out on that wire. So a wood-planked pedestrian bridge was built across the Clutha, in time to see Horseshoe Bend population shrink to 30 and gradually fade away entirely.

Highway 8 wandered through narrow valleys and finally brought us to coastal farmland. Once over the hills that separate the sea from inland pastures, the road wound along the coast and up hills that offered vistas of huge waves moving toward shore.

We didn’t think we had a map (actually, we did have) so took a somewhat circuitous route past Dunedin and out the Otaga Peninsula. At one point we were uncertain at an intersection and headed toward Larnach Castle instead of Portobello.

That turned out to be a good detour. New Zealand’s only castle is impressive. William Larnach was an Australian banker. The post-gold rush boom in New Zealand lured him to the Otago Peninsula in 1870, where he built this mansion, outlived three wives, and, in 1898, killed himself in the House of Parliament.

Larnach Castle on Otago Peninsula
Larnach Castle on Otago Peninsula

His children sold the property, and it eventually fell into ruins. The current owners bought Larnach Castle and 14 hectares of surrounding wilderness in 1967. Restoration of the home and development of the extensive gardens has become their life’s work.

One of the gardens at Larnach Castle
One of the gardens at Larnach Castle

Speed limit on these Otaga Peninsula roads is 100 km, just as it is everywhere in New Zealand, unless marked otherwise. On Canadian roads with similar curves, 80 km/hour would be an absolute maximum. These are handle-grabbing roads, at least for passengers easily frightened. They skate along steep drops, with no barriers and no shoulders. A slight swerve could send wheels onto tire-grabbing gravel and right over the edge.

We don’t drive them at 100 km. Fortunately, this time of year they are not heavily traveled so we seldom have irritated drivers piling up behind.

After the penguin tour…

Another couple has checked into our farm lodge, but they’re young and have (judging by the aromas when we walked in) eaten and gone off to something more exciting than watching the New Zealand prime minister talk about Maori representation in Parliament.

We’ve eaten the limited rations we had with us: crumpets, sharp cheddar, bits of lettuce, salted cashews, carrots, apple, and…ahhhh…wine. Atop the crumpets we slathered the manuka honey we recently discovered. The Maori say it has medicinal properties. Its distinctive flavour is tinged with a slight bitter spice. Combined with honey sweetness, the taste is addictive.

Penguins head home from a day's fishing
Penguins head home from a day's fishing

Our penguin tour was well worth the $35 each we paid. Penguin Place is a private operation, with no government funding. The farmer has a small (for New Zealand) flock of sheep and a stretch of beach with one of the few yellow-eyed penguin colonies still in existence. The crested waddlers have increased fivefold since he began a conservation project. And we tourists provide the funding needed to cover the cost of conservation and help keep the whole operation, farm included, viable.

Robin knew to sign up for the final tour of the day, when penguins were most likely to be returning to land after a day’s fishing. The timing was brilliant. These penguins, third largest of the species, are solitary souls. Other than with their mates and young chicks, they don’t socialize much. They breed alone. They sit their nests alone. They rear their chicks alone. All that happens in colonies, of course, but the nesting sites are scattered widely over the chosen area.

Penguins pause on their way home for the night
Penguins pause on their way home for the night

This colony is on land that was pretty thoroughly grazed before the farmer saw an opportunity in penguin conservation. Now a chunk of grazing land has been fenced off. Major replanting of native species is gradually returning it to appropriate habitation for penguins. Pathways are mowed to provide predator-free roads for the penguins to return to their nests after a day’s fishing – and also to allow the tourists, who pay the bills, to view the penguins.

An extensive network of tunnels has been dug, covered, and camouflaged to provide viewing areas. The penguins are not unaware of the humans nearby, but the two-legged witnesses are kept safely confined while the penguins roam free.

Lone bird heads into the bush
Lone bird heads into the bush

We were lucky this evening. In addition to the odd solo bird moving from water to beach to brushy home, we saw a group of four adults and one juvenile waddling, stopping, grooming, waddling, stopping, grooming, pond swimming, and finally waddling out of sight.

So today has been another of a continuing string of Best Days. We’re settled in for the night and looking forward to tomorrow, when we hope to see some albatross.

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