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Wednesday 25th October: Dunedin to Timaru - THE SPECIALS "Ghost Town"

Once again, we woke early to try and make full use of the day. After a quick breakfast, we played a rather unorthodox game of pitch and putt in that the only club available for both pitching and putting was a rather cheap driver and the only available golf balls were 100% plastic. A full-blooded drive sent the ball all of ten yards.

The next stop was Dunedin City Centre again, to allow us to have a quick nosey around the place. First of all, we had a look in the i-Site before quaffing a tea/coffee at the Croque-O-Dile cafe. This was quickly followed by a stop at the ever-so-tacky Scottish shop which sold shortbreads, model Scottie dogs and every type of tartan. Hellish. A just as quick rummage through some souvenir shops found us back at the van and driving on.

One of the many historic buildings on view from the Octagon in Dunedin City Centre.

Due to popular demand (from Jenny) our next stop was the Dunedin Botanic Gardens. Prepared to be underwhelmed, I was pleasantly surprised by how... well... pleasant the place was. We started by walking over a few bridges, allowing for a couple of quick games of pooh sticks. We then took a wander up to the aviary via the fragrant rock gardens. The aviary was a delightful cacophony of colour and sound as native birds communicated with colourful cockatoos, parrots and parakeets from other places in wider Australasia. And it was gratis! After a long diversion at the sizeable aviary, the walk back to the van was made via the extensive rhododendron gardens, where the sun belted down its warming rays on all and sundry. Not quite like a summer's day in Hyde Park, but you had the feeling that if the place had been transplanted into London, there would have been some topless sunbathing going on!

Some of the thousands of Rhododendrons that can be seen in the Rhododendron Garden in the Dunedin Botanical Gardens.

Back in the van, we were soon heading North on state highway one towards North Otago and the town of Oamaru (pronounce that one!). On the way, we stopped off at the Moeraki Boulders. These are one of the most famous sights in New Zealand. Sitting on a stretch of beach that probably a good couple of kilometres long are some boulders that are almost perfectly spherical. The boulders themselves can only be found on a very short section of the beach, and indeed, from a distance they look very spherical. Up close, the intact boulders have cracks and imperfections all over their exterior giving them a finish like crazy paving. I sat and posed on one of the boulders as if it was an egg and sat and looked at two new boulders rapidly appearing out of the cliff face thanks to the erosion of the surrounding sandstone.

From left to right: Some views of the Moeraki Boulders (i) A close up view (ii) A new boulder slowly being revealed from the cliff face (iii) A distant view from the cafe.

After looking at the boulders, it was a short walk to the overlooking cafe where we indulged in milkshakes whilst observing the consistent Pacific waves crashing in on the beach as the tide slowly rose. After watching this relaxing scene for a while, we went back to the camper and made some sandwiches for lunch before hitting the road again for the little remaining distance to Oamaru.

Oamaru is a funny town. It must have been very rich at one point as there are some imposing stone buildings complete with Grecian pillars in the town. Now though, it seems only to be slowly recovering from the reduction in influence of its once proud harbour and the closure of the passenger railway. Most of the recovery is thanks to the tourism associated with its Victorian architecture and the local colony of Little Blue Penguins.

One of the whitestone buildings that Oamaru is famous for.

We initially drove round Oamaru for five minutes looking for car parks before driving down the main street and realising the central reservation was the car park. We then took a short walk along the bleak harbour / railway promenade to the Whitestone Cheese Factory. This was mainly on the Lonely Planet's recommendation of the cheesecake. Despite the eccentric woman behind the till responding that the coffee machine was being cleaned to our request for cheesecake, we were soon eating an extremely rich rhubarb cheesecake. It was delicious, but very indulgent! We also purchased a rimu cheeseboard and some cheese samples. We tried to exercise off the cheesecake by having a quick walk around town - however, most places of interest had closed for the day.

Taking the camper, we drove to Oamaru Botanical Gardens. Much smaller than Dunedin's, they were helped by a couple of splendid peacocks and sunny weather. We lay back in the gardens and played a couple of lazy rounds of eye spy whilst relaxing and watching the world go by very slowly. Eventually, the sun went in and we went for dinner at the Last Post restaurant on the main High Street. It was a strange place, attempting the difficult hybrid of pub for the locals and restaurant for the tourists, an attempt that it didn't quite pull off, but had a fair stab at.

By this time, it was getting late and just about ready for our reason to visit Oamaru; the little blue penguin colony. The penguins used to be seen as a pest in the town, but now are the centre of attention as Oamaru attempts to rebrand itself as Penguin Central. This is helped by the close proximity of a colony of yellow-eyed penguins.

On the way to the visitor centre, pretty much next to Oamaru Harbour, or even part of the harbour, there were a couple of large warning signs notifying of "Penguins Crossing". We largely ignored the signs. The centre itself was quite new and pretty well kitted out. We paid our money and browsed the shop until 8pm. This was the time to take our seats at the foreshore amphitheatre, overlooking a tiny, rock-strewn beach. The small wooden amphitheatre gradually filled up. A large party of South-East Asians arrived, most of whom were wearing surgical masks, obviously worried about contracting bird flu from the penguins.

Time passed and the sun slowly set. Through the binoculars, all I could see was a large Australian oil rig on the horizon. It reached 8.30. Surely we should have seen penguins by now. Time still passed.

At about 8.40, we heard a distant high-pitched 'Quaaaaackk' sound. Then a few more, getting steadily closer. All of a sudden, surfing in on a breaking wave, 30 or so tiny penguins (unbelievably small) washed up on the beach. Most of the group struggled up over the little rocks, occasionally slipping back, before making it to the top and safety. The remainder either sat on the rocks preening their feathers, or played in the breaking waves.

From left to right: A little blue penguin and chick and a close up of a little blue.

We watched them at this for about 10 minutes before we heard another distant 'Quaaaacckk' and about 60 to 70 penguins washed up and went through the same procedure.

We, unfortunately, then had to leave to drive up the coast to the next town, Timaru before the holiday park there closed. Getting into our van and then getting onto the harbour road, we headed a traffic jam caused by another 20 penguins waddling slowly and haphazardly across the road. We had an extreme close up view of a couple of them as they fearlessly ambled to the camper before veering off and disappearing into the undergrowth. We eventually got past, driving about 50 yards before being held up by a single, tiny penguin walking down the middle of the road.

And then we were off, driving into the night another 100km up the coast to the home of Phar Lap, Mighty Timaru. The holiday park was just about still open when we arrived. We quickly parked up in one of the remaining bays, washed and went to bed.

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