Skip to Content

Exploring New Zealand


Mark Brownlow - February 10, 2007

Driving along the shore of Lake Dunstan

Day five of our trip and we're flagging. Today we want to complete our South Island journey and head across to Dunedin on the east coast. But tired legs and heavy cloud have drained us of our travel enthusiasm. We need a break.

New Zealand has its own traps for the unwary holidaymaker. The open roads and distant landscapes seduce you into too many hours on the road. The traffic may be light, but the constant curves and single-track bridges take their toll. The vastness of the experience and the confines of the car are beginning to wear us down.

We vow to take things more slowly next time. But we have a schedule to keep and a reservation at the Scenic Circle Hotel. So notebooks and cameras ready, we leave a waking Wanaka for the trip southeast on Highways 6, 8 and 1.

Beehives on the hillside

Once again we're reminded of how quickly you adapt to beautiful landscapes. The road to Dunedin is a scenic one by most standards. But the hills, layered rock formations, forests and vineyards passed in a blur. Were we too tired or just landscaped out by our West Coast experiences?

The weather was perhaps the biggest culprit for our missing joie de vivre. Leaden skies sit uneasily with the browns, greens and greys of the land here in Otago. Dark skies for a dark mood.

The initial part of the journey took us along the course of the Clutha River and then around Lake Dunstan before bringing us into Cromwell.

Giant fruit sculpture, Cromwell, Otago region

Like many New Zealand towns, Cromwell pitches itself as a tourist destination. But its main economic activity is fruit growing, a fact commemorated with a giant coloured fruit sculpture just after the main turning into town.

Even without the sculpture, its hard to avoid this trademark Cromwell industry. The surrounding hills and fields are dotted with vineyards and orchards. And there are plenty of roadside opportunities to buy or sample local fruit and vegetables, as well as honey produced in the many beehives we saw during our journey east.

Clyde hydroelectric dam

Beyond Cromwell lay Clyde, home of the dam of the same name. So, for once, it was a manmade construct that caused us to pause the journey for photos and fresh air.

The Clyde hydroelectric dam is huge, and opened at the end of the 1980s. Its construction flooded the area above it, creating Lake Dunstan and forcing planners to relocate large portions of Cromwell to safer ground. Highway 8 gives you a great view of the dam, the waters beyond and the town of Clyde itself.

Several snapshots later and we were back driving, eager to get ourselves off the road and relaxing in Dunedin.

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully. Unlike our earlier drives, there were many villages and towns along the route. So petrol and food was readily available. This took the pressure off a little: no fear of finding ourselves stranded with an empty petrol tank because we forgot to fill up 100km back down the road.

It wasn't long before Dunedin's city limits appeared. In fact, they appeared well before any signs of urban habitation. It seems its rather generous boundary definitions make Dunedin the country's largest city by area (and allegedly the fifth largest in the world!).

St. Paul's Cathedral, Dunedin, New Zealand

It's actually home to approaching 150,000 people...and a big chunk of those are students who disappear during the breaks between semesters.

Driving to the hotel, we were surprised to find ourselves in a "real" city again. Dunedin has the feel of a well-to-do large British town, with much Scottish influence (as you might expect from the name). We even found ourselves on a little stretch of motorway, our first on the South Island.

Those -- like us -- coming in from the sparsely populated west might need a bit of time to adjust to traffic and people again. It was certainly a shock to have to seek out a car park, rather than just pull up randomly at the side of the road, as we'd done pretty much everywhere else.

Safely checked in, we were delighted to find the hotel was on Princes Street, just a couple of blocks from the Octagon, the unofficial centre of the city and home to cafes, restaurants, gift shops and the tourist information office. The eight-sided square was a good starting place to get familiar with our new home. And it didn't take us long to recognise the three pillars of Dunedin's city character.

Pipers marching through Dunedin

The first is its innate Scottishness. Just around the Octagon you have streets bearing names like Princes (think Edinburgh), Moray, Stewart, St.Andrew and Cumberland. Suburb names like Roslyn and Glenross continue the theme. And a statue of Scottish poet Robert Burns watches over one side of the Octagon, in the shadow of St. Paul's Cathedral.

Of course, our impression was skewed by an overwhelming amount of tartan on display as we walked through the town. We could not turn a corner without bumping into someone sporting a kilt and smart jacket. It seems we had stumbled into the annual meeting of the country's Scottish Pipe bands. The sounds of drums and bagpipes accompanied us wherever we went.

Statue of Robert Burns in the Octagon, Dunedin

The city is also coloured by the cultural and culinary impact of a thriving university population. The students were just arriving for a new semester, and a fair few of them celebrated the fact outside our hotel later that night.

And then there's the focus on ecological tourism. For a city, Dunedin has some remarkable wildlife on show. Including an albatross breeding colony (the only mainland colony in the world) and rare yellow-eyed penguins.

As usual, we had no time to take in more than the minimum Dunedin had to offer. And that meant a quick trip to the railway station before taking a tour of the Cadbury's factory.

This factory has one overwhelming advantage compared to rare seabirds, art galleries and can eat the displays. Intrigued as we were by the prospect of learning how a large food factory works, it was the inevitable free samples that tickled (literally) our palates.

The famous much-photographed railway station at Dunedin

Both the railway station and the Cadbury building were a short walk from the Octagon along Stuart St. The former is no longer a formal part of the national rail network. But its fascinating architecture makes it one of the most sought after photographs in all New Zealand.

After taking the obligatory shots, we walked back up the road to enter Cadbury's World. While we were waiting for the tour to begin, we took in the displays on the history of chocolate. It's a fascinating one too, involving monarchs and jungles, human sacrifice and power politics.

The tour itself included a video presentation and a guided walk through the production and storage facilities. Unfortunately, the machines were not in operation (it was the weekend), but we got extra chocolate rations to compensate. Nobody complained.

Van bearing the Cadbury chocolate logo, on the Cadbury factory tour

This was one tour where it paid to keep an eager ear on proceedings, as the tour guide threw out various questions while walking round. Correct answers were rewarded with... more chocolate.

If you've never gone behind the scenes in a large factory, the scale and complexity of the machinery is worth a look. All the more so when it's part of a friendly and well-structured tour.

Once outside again, it was time for a bit of quick souvenir shopping and a meal. We ate at the Octagon, reverting back to traditional New Zealand fare after our brief fling with Japanese cuisine in Wanaka. Once again, we weren't disappointed with the quality or quantity.

South Island spoils: our carpet of accumulated brochures

Dunedin marked the physical halfway stage of our trip, as we were flying from the airport the next day. So rather than investigate the city further, we retired early to the hotel to gather notes and thoughts in preparation for our North Island visit.

Viewing the vast number of brochures we'd collected, reviewing the hundreds of photos, and watching our stomachs slowly expand under the weight of the glorious New Zealand food, the wondrous nature of the South Island hit home.

It may be a lot of driving and an awful lot of landscape. But it is an unparalleled experience, even when the weather dampens spirits. And to think we only covered the centre third of the island. The delights of Nelson, Marlborough, Queenstown and the south remained names on a map for a future visit. For now, though, it was time to turn our attention to the North. Wellington awaited.

Click for more travel impressions