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South Island Trip: Christchurch to Queenstown

Written by Cathy Siegismund
March 2002

We continued our drive down the coast. We were heading to Dunedin for the night, but first made a stop in Oamaru.

Oamaru a small historic coastal town, best known for its penguins.


Historic Oamaru

Both yellow-eyed and little blue penguins nest in Oamaru. The yellow-eyed penguins are one of the rarest. Penguins fish all day, and come ashore in the evening. Penguins are known to go to see and stay out fishing for prolonged periods of time. They will do this particularly when they are preparing to molt. Prior to the molt, the penguins must at least double their weight. While they are molting they will lose all their feathers and grow a complete new set. During the molt, the penguins are unable to fish as they are not waterproof and will remain ashore for several weeks to a month, depending on the type of penguin.

Penguins often mate for life, as long as the partnership can successfully produce chicks. Most penguin parents will produce two chicks each year. Parents will take turns fishing and both participate in the raising of the chicks.

We first went to the beach to watch the yellow-eyed penguins coming ashore. A site that can only be seen in central South Island of New Zealand and the sub-Antarctic islands.

Beach where we watched the yellow-eyed penguins

Rare yellow-eyed penguin

We next went to a center for the little blue penguins, a site has been fenced in to keep out predators, and nesting boxes and a small grandstand have been built.

Penguins Crossing

You pay a small fee, sit in the grandstands and wait for the penguins to come ashore. The small grandstand is next to the rocky shore. There is a small dirt road and across from that is a fenced man-made nesting area. We at first were perplexed at how the penguins would get through the fence to their nests, until we saw that they are only about 10 inches tall, and would only have to duck to waddle under the fence. As amazingly cute as the little blue penguins are, they are are extremely successful fishermen. They will usually travel up to 20 km a day to feed and dive up to 30 meters.

Just as it was getting dark, the surf seemed to spit out 3-5 penguins at a time. The little guys would then carefully climb up the rocky shore, periodically preening themselves. They then would congregate at the edge of the road, looking right and left like they were expecting traffic. There then seemed to be some unheard command to make a run for it, and the little blue penguins would dash - as quickly as a 10 inch penguin can go - across the road, under the fence and into their nesting area.

Little Blue Penguins

We didn't leave Oamaru until about 8pm, and had a couple of hours drive to Dunedin. We were thankful we had made reservations at a nice hotel. After a good night's sleep, we spent the morning exploring Dunedin. After breakfast, we toured the historic railway station.


Dunedin Train Station

In the early afternoon, we had made reservations to tour Penguin Place, and the Royal Albatross Center. From Dunedin, we took the scenic one-hour drive out to the end of the Otago Peninsula. The home to several cute small towns, some lovely homes, and a number of tourist attractions, including Larnach Castle, Penguin Place and the Royal Albatross Center.

View from the Otago Peninsula

Our first stop was Penguin Place. A first rate private conservation reserve for the yellow-eyed penguin. This extremely rare penguin, which nests on the Otago Peninsula was suffering from the feral animals that now live in New Zealand.

The conservation project was established in 1984. At the time, there were just 8 breeding pairs. The area is fenced and protected from feral animals such as dogs, cats, possums and skoats (a sort of ferret), as well as having man-made nests the penguins can use. To fund the conservation project, Penguin Place was created. There is a visitors' center, gift shop and guided tours through the colony to view the penguins. The tour starts with a short lecture and film about the birds. You are then driven out to the colony were you are led through covered trenches and observation huts from which you can view the penguins up close without disturbing them. This year the conservation had 36 nesting pairs of penguins.

Penguin Place, set on the lovely Otago Peninsula

A few fur seals resting on the penguin's beach


A young penguin getting the lay of the land


The covered trenches and observation huts

While we visited Penguin Place, the penguins were in the middle of their molt.


Molting Yellow-Eyed Penguin

On the way back to the visitors' center, we stopped at the Penguin Place hospital. Here they care for injured and sick birds, and will feed immature birds who were underweight when they were ready to leave the nest.


Penguin Place hospital

After a great tour at Penguin Place, we continued further out to the end of the Otago Peninsula to Taiaroa Head to the Royal Albatross Center.

Royal Albatross

The Royal Albatross is the world’s largest sea bird. It is huge with a height of up to four feet and a wingspan of over ten feet. They feed on surface shoaling fish and squid. Male and female pairs, who usually mate for life, raise one chick every two years. The chicks mature at six years, and live for about 45 years. When the Albatross is not looking for a mate or raising chicks at Taiaroa Head, they are at sea. After the young albatross leaves the nest, they will spend 6-10 years living at sea, until they return to find a mate. Once they are a part of breeding pair, they will spend one year on land raising their chick, and then an alternate year back at sea. The albatross can fly over 60 km an hour and fly over 1000 miles per day. While at sea, they fly around the Antarctic continent through the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans before returning to New Zealand waters.

The Royal Albatross Center, protects the breeding area from feral predators as well as tracking the albatross that are born and return to breed on the Otago Peninsula. The colony tour started with a film about the albatross; we then walked up to a glassed observation room. We saw one albatross flying around Taiaroa Head and three of the large chicks were sitting in their nests.


Albatross chicks

After our two wildlife tours, we set off for Invercargill, where we would spend our last night before we had to be in Queenstown. We arrived in the early evening, and got a room at bed and breakfast and had dinner. The next day we drove around town, and stopped at the museum, where they have Tuataras.

The Tuatara is the last surviving member of a family of reptiles, which have existed for over 200 million years. The first Tuataras lived with the Dinosaurs. The Tuatara disappeared everywhere on Earth, except for New Zealand, where mammals never reached.


Tuataras are reptiles but they are very different from lizards, crocodiles and amphibians (frogs, salamanders). Tuatara have a primitive body structure indicating that they are one of the oldest and most un-evolved species, having hardly changed in the past 200 million years. They have extremely slow metabolisms; you can watch them for hours without seeing them move. Some of the Tuatara at the Invercargill museum are over 100 years old.

After the visit to the museum, we drove through the beautiful Southland country to Queenstown. On the way we saw a not uncommon site.

Stopping to let farmers drive their sheep past us on the road


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