City of Light

At dawn I watch from the window of my hotel room as the sun rises over St. Claire Beach. A lone jogger makes her way across the shimmering sand; a row of old wharf posts jut from the beach like an installation artist’s representation of Stonehenge. The sun bursts from the sea like a revelation.

It is early March. A southerly weather system has the entire South Island in its grip. The TV forecast spooling across the screen in my room shows rain on the West Coast, showers in Christchurch and sunshine in sheltered Nelson. But here in Dunedin I can piece together my own forecast while standing at the window: cold wind, squally showers and the best light in the world.

Dunedin is a city of light. Its clear air, fresh from the Southern Ocean, sharpens and focuses the sunlight. Rainbows form over the folds and hummocks of the peninsula and brushstrokes of colour flood the city at dawn when the sun shines directly down the harbour. As I drive into town, through the brick and weatherboard suburb of St. Kilda, I watch a constantly-changing collage of light and shadow as the wind shapes and re-shapes the clouds as they rush across the sky.

I have breakfast with butterflies. Inside the Otago Museum’s butterfly house it is a balmy twenty-eight degrees. My cold camera immediately fogs up. A rainbow collection of butterflies from all over the world flit about in the dripping tropical forest where a waterfall cascades beside a giant banana tree. As I stand on a suspended glass bridge high in the treetops, my banana muffin becomes breakfast for both me and a scarlet swallowtail butterfly.

At the Chinese Gardens, one of only three such authentic gardens outside China, golden fish are swimming in reflective, willow-fringed ponds. The wooden pagodas, built by Chinese craftsmen without using nails, frame views of limestone outcrops and tiled courtyards. In the teahouse, I sip fragrant jasmine tea from a tiny pottery cup while three old men play mahjong at a nearby table.

Later, I sit in silence in a different yet no less peaceful space. The gothic First Church, built with money from the Otago goldfields, stands on a flattened hillock overlooking the harbour. A Polynesian woman wearing an ornate white hat decorated with flowers sits in a pew near the altar. We are the only people in the church. I can hear the wind moaning around the eaves outside; the vaulted timber ceiling creaks as the building shrugs its stone shoulders at its force. Outside, the leaves are beginning to turn to autumn gold.

For a coffee junkie like me, Dunedin is caffeine Nirvana. I fortify my morning wanderings with takeaway brews from d’Oro, an early-opening café in the Casino building. Up in the suburb of Roslyn, a short Mornington bus-ride uphill from The Octagon, I while away a several pleasant hours in Rhubarb Café, a converted butcher’s shop serving what I consider the best coffee in Dunedin.

Food is also a constant distraction. I form an almost obsessive relationship with chef Michael Coughlin’s pork belly recipe at the Pier 24 restaurant in St. Claire. The bacon sarnies sold at the Farmer’s Market, held beside the railway station every Saturday morning, would sustain a gold miner through a hard day.

Wherever I go in Dunedin, I am never far from the natural world. The city’s founders created a green belt running north/south between the hills and the harbour. Narrow roads wind through tunnels of overhanging vegetation which occasionally open to give foliage-framed views out across the city. The steep streets (including Baldwin Street, the world’s steepest) lead quickly from the busy city centre up to suburbs where the closely-packed houses seem suspended halfway to the sky. Even the dead get a view: every grave in the Northern Cemetery commands a panorama of the town below.

The rain from a passing squall is hammering at the windows of Salt at St. Claire as I lunch on seafood chowder on a cold Friday. As every explorer knows, a good lunch is as important as taking a bag of lollies in your backpack. A van pulls up outside. Shaun, from Elm Wildlife Tours, has arrived to take me to the edge of the world.

Out on the tip of the Otago Peninsula, the wind is alive. It clutches at my clothes and sings a Siren song in the fence-wires. Shaun leads our party of ten down a steep track to a sweep of beach guarded by fangs of rock. The headland above shelters the beach from the worst onslaughts of the wind but its cold remnants still rattle the flax bushes growing on the beach margins and whip up miniature storms of sand.

“Let’s just stand here quietly for a minute and see what happens,” says Shaun. Off to our right a female Yellow-eyed Penguin watches us from a screen of tall grass. Her mate calls to her as he waddles up the path like an office worker home in time for tea. The pair entwine their necks and croon to each other.

“They’re singing a love song,” whispers Shaun.

Down on the beach, a different male/female drama is unfolding. Three male Hooker’s Sea Lions are competing for the attentions of a lone female. A massive, battle-scarred older male lumbers around the doe-eyed female as he works to prevent the other males – louche youngsters who fancy their chances – from approaching her. For her part, the female seems happy to tease all three and encourage the continuous scrapping.

Eventually, the female tires of her ersatz suitors and flops into the sea. The older male follows her and the pair disappear beneath the waves to feed. The younger males sprawl on the sand and go to sleep. We leave them to slumber and walk up through the dunes to a hide overlooking the beach.

A dozen penguins are standing about on the edge of the sand, calling to their mates whose nests lie hidden in the thickets of flax and tussock on the cliff. Another sea-lion dozes nearby, occasionally raising its head for a desultory look around. It is almost dark by the time we have climbed back up to the waiting van.

The following afternoon I wander through a different kind of wilderness: Castle Street. Running from the Otago University campus up to the Botanic Gardens, Castle Street is home to some of Dunedin’s iconic examples of student flat grottiness. But as I stroll around in the autumn sunlight the street looks benign and sleepy. Many of the flats have names – such as Pink Floyd The Wall and The Bee Hive – and a few of their denizens are moving sleepily about. Rectangles of melted asphalt along the street mark the spots where couches have been ritually cremated; middens of empty beer bottles piled up at the gateways speak of great sacramental occasions gone by.

Later, I watch the sunset from the headland at Second Beach, a few minutes walk south from St. Clair Beach. Forests of kelp, anchored to the weathered volcanic rocks, sway to and fro with the swells. The distant hillside suburbs of the city are awash with golden light as the sun sinks towards the hidden interior of Central Otago where the golden fortunes of Dunedin’s early days were found.

The sea is calm. Gulls and terns hang on updrafts over the cliffs. I have a dinner date at the nearby Pier 24 Restaurant in the new St. Claire Beach Resort. Soon I will be drinking warm red wine and mingling with a new crowd as darkness engulfs the ocean outside the restaurant’s big windows. But for now I am content to stand here alone on this rocky headland, watching another day end in the city of light.

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