Monday, 10 July 2017

A Bit o' History - & New Memories Made

Aghhh, where has the time gone?  So much news to catch up on!  For starters, we've been back in the van for about a week now, hooray!  Just as we were about to give up hope we finally bloody got there.  But that's another blog.  First I need to fill you in on our travel adventures!  I'll be honest, the first time we went to Dunedin I didn't really like it all that much.  Sure, some of the old buildings were cool but I found it really spread out, a lot like Hamilton so that it takes you ages and 50 million traffic lights to get anyway.  I hated driving in it, all the lanes and one way systems were so confusing and for such a massive place there seemed bugger all to do!  It probably didn't help that it rained the entire time we were there either.  Unfortunately for me, Gareth's favourite shop, Warhammer is located right in the heart of Dunedin (it's actually the only shop of its kind in the whole South Island) so a few months later it meant going again for a flying visit.  This time it didn't rain at all and although I still couldn't navigate my way around to save myself, I enjoyed it far more, particularly cruising around the Otago Peninsula.  It reminds me a lot of driving the Thames coast road in Coromandel; narrow, winding and picturesque, passing through several small settlements as you go.

Gareth goes to Dunedin for Warhammer, I go for the food!

There still wasn't much to do in Dunedin though in my humble opinion, except eat, which we did an awful lot of.  As Murphy's Law would have it however, no sooner had we got back to Gore than I read a travel blog by NZMCA member Shellie Evans talking about her visit to a place called Tunnel Beach in Dunedin that very day.  It sounded awesome - why had none of the locals told us about it when we asked them what there was to do?  All any of them had had to say was 'go and see the penguins and seals', which you had to pay a fortune for to get taken out in a boat.  Having walked among them for free in the Catlins we didn't feel we could top that.  That's the way it often goes though, many locals don't even realise what's on their own back doorstep; it's travellers like Shellie who make it easier for the rest of us by sharing their remarkable finds and spreading the word.   After that we couldn't wait to get back to Dunedin and check it out.

Tunnel Beach - we missed out last time!

Unfortunately what with first Minnie being ill and then all the shenanigans with the van, it took more than two months for us to get there again but we looked forward to it with every week that passed. One thing was for certain, after all the heartache we had been through with the damp, mould, stinky paint and everything else, when the time finally came, we were going to do it properly and treat ourselves to a nice motel.  By that time, I had also had a chance to read a lot more about Dunedin and its surrounding areas.  It was going to be a busy few days when we eventually got there!  As the end of June approached we finally dared to hope that the time had come.  We booked Minnie into a rural boarding kennel where she was in her element out on the farm surrounded by doggy friends and at last we were on our way.  Ken was about to get his first decent run in quite a while!

Bubbles, rubbish on TV and cosy slippers - just like a 'normal' life!

The journey wasn't the most enjoyable as the van was still full of paint fumes and despite the freezing temperatures we had no choice but to drive most of the way with the windows down and our heads hanging out so that we could breathe!  Still, it's an easy drive from Gore to Dunedin on the main highway and I never get sick of admiring the beautiful rolling hill country and the ever-changing Southland sky along the way.  A couple of hours later we were checking into our motel, the Aurora on George Street.  We stayed there once before and it was lovely, however this time we made sure we chose a smaller room as the last one was much too big for us!  This time it was perfect, not that we spent too much time in it as we were too busy exploring and wandering around the city at our leisure. One thing I still can't get used to is how devoid of people South Island cities are compared to North Island ones.  Don't get me wrong though, it's a wonderful thing!  After the craziness of Auckland and Hamilton, the cities I was most accustomed to, it's a lovely novelty to be able to walk the streets and browse the malls without people constantly jostling you and getting in each other's way.  Even in the bustling bars and cafe's in the Octagon we would often find ourselves almost the only ones!

Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Municipal Buildings

Och aye, it's Robbie Burns!

Another reason for our trip was to do some research for an upcoming Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations article.  The theme was to be art galleries and sculptures and we had everything planned. First stop was the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and on entering I was embarrassed to realise I was setting foot in perhaps only the second art gallery of my whole life; the first being Auckland a few years before.  I have to say, I enjoyed the Dunedin one far more.  It was smaller and far more intimate but none the less impressive.  The highlight for me was coming face to face with my first original Monet painting!  He was my favourite artist since I was a teenager and the rockstar posters on my bedroom wall back then were interspersed with framed prints and cards of his work.  It was a really nice and relaxing way to spend a morning and we both walked away feeling glad that we had done something different from the usual beach/bush/climbing outdoorsy stuff.  We also took the time to have a leisurely browse around the surrounding architecture - the Municipal Buildings, St Paul's Cathedral (not 'the' St Paul's obviously!) and my favourite, Writer's Walk, with a big bold statue of Robert Burns proudly in residence.

We had plenty to go on already for our Motorhomes article - but there was another place we thought would really be the icing on the cake and decided to bite the bullet and add another day to our stay. Our destination?  Oamaru,  the Steampunk Capital of NZ and home to Steampunk HQ!  The road to Oamaru was a new one for both of us and we were really excited to explore some uncharted territory. As we set off over the hills to Blueskin Bay and Waitati I also found myself up against another new experience, driving on black ice.  At such altitude and under the shade of thick trees and bush, there was no chance of this stuff melting today.  I didn't want to let on to Gareth how scared I was but I had never driven in the stuff before and that very morning a car had slid off the road at Portobello, just a few minutes away and plunged into the harbour!  'I like this road!'  Gareth beamed happily, blissfully unaware that I was in fact crapping myself as I tried to stay focused on the road and maintain a safe speed.  Was the whole 100km journey going to be like this?  Mercifully it wasn't, and as we passed Waitati the road flattened out, the sun shone and I was able to relax and enjoy the journey.

Oamaru's Victorian Precinct.  No doubt brilliant on any day but Monday!

We had checked online beforehand to make sure the Steampunk museum would be open, which it was.  However as we discovered on arriving, you shouldn't really visit Oamaru in winter on a Monday as pretty much everything else is closed - and being Murphy's Law it was indeed a Monday. Still, even in its closed-up state it was obvious that Oamaru is a very cool town.  Despite driving through many quaint and historical towns on our travels, Oamaru really is next level.  I felt as though we were in a Dickens novel as we made our way down the narrow cobbled streets, dotted with old fashioned sweet shops, artisans and forges.  The Victorian Precinct felt like being in a ghost town, with everything closed the way it was.  It was such a shame that we were unable to pop into the many craft shops, galleries and boutique cafes and shops - but on the other hand it was plain to see that we hadn't allowed ourselves enough time to 'do' Oamaru properly anyway.  To see everything would easily take a whole day, if not two.  That was fine with us though, it meant we could go back again! And this time we would know to stay, rather than return to Dunedin the same day.

Welcome to Steampunk HQ!

Very cool playground equipment for grown ups!

Cue spooky Scooby Doo music!  Gareth doing his best to look menacing on the Intergalactic Pipe Organ

Besides - just around the corner across the railway tracks was Steampunk HQ!  You can't miss it, with its imposing building and gloriously wonky steam train perched precariously out the front.  Entry is $10 per person and whilst it's not as big as we thought it would be (it took just half an hour for us to cover everything, and that was stopping to take heaps of photos for Gareth's mum too) it was still well worth the money and the visit for the enjoyment factor and to see such a collection of wonderful creative minds come together.  There is such a huge element of fun here and we loved the interactivemess of the museum.  Compared to most museums where you have to be quiet and are not allowed to touch exhibits, at Steampunk HQ you are encouraged to climb in things, on things, see how stuff works and generally marvel at how the heck anyone ever thinks of coming up with any of it.  As one middle-aged English tourist happily told us, 'I feel like a kid again!' Definite highlight for us was The Portal, a beautiful walk-in experience of light and sound that you won't want to end.

The Portal - we're in there somewhere!

Mission accomplished, and with pretty much nowhere else for us to go, we made our way back to Dunedin before the roads started to freeze again.  When we arrived back at the Aurora Motel, a lovely surprise awaited us and we had been given a complimentary upgrade to the most luxurious suite in the complex as an apology for some noisy guests keeping us awake the night before!  You cannot imagine my delight at wandering in and discovering a spa bath - I never thought I would ever be able to have a bath again!  After all our adventuring we fell soundly asleep in our pristine king sized bed - which was just as well seeing as there was absolutely nothing worth watching on our 55 TV channels. Good to know we haven't missed anything!

The start of the Tunnel Beach track.  Before the sheer drop!

The following day it was time to return to Gore, but we still had one more item to check off our 'must do' list.  This time we weren't going to leave without visiting the historical Tunnel Beach!   This little spot just 7km out of Dunedin is heralded as possibly the most romantic beach in NZ, due to the story behind it.  Back in the 1870's, a politician named John Cargill commissioned the beach for his family and actually carved a tunnel right the way through the cliff, 150 stone steps and all, so that his wife could sunbathe in private, away from prying eyes.  She would have had to be one heck of a keen woman to go sunbathing there very often though I can tell you, as just getting down there and back involves a solid hour of effort!  The descent to the beach entails navigating a long, winding and very steep track from the top down to the cliffs.  This is itself can be quite tricky, especially at this time of year when the track can be wet and slippery.  What concerned me the most however was how the hell I was going to get back up though!  Judging by the tales I had heard and the sight of several young men who passed us drenched in sweat and struggling for breath (one had to literally sit down in the middle of the path until he could go on again!) I was positively scared at the prospect.  Even so, the two of us had a laugh trying to stay upright all the way down and by some miracle we managed to get down to the bottom without stumbling and rolling off the cliffs.  Another very important thing I forgot to mention is that you can only get down to the beach at low tide, otherwise the water comes up too far and you'd never make it through the tunnel.

150 steps and a tunnel carved right through a cliff.  Let's face it,
that's a pretty special thing to do for your Missus!

Talking of the tunnel, now I was faced with it I was having problems getting myself to go through it. It was pitch black and literally had been carved through the cliff but we're not talking a huge cavern here, but a very narrow space.  I'm pretty claustrophobic (that sounds ironic for someone who lives in a van doesn't it, but nonetheless!) and several times on our travels I've been pissed off at it getting in the way of my adventuring.  This time was nothing short of heartbreaking though - I mean, it was SUCH a long way down and we'd gone to such lengths to get there!  Even the rain had stopped long enough for us to be able to make the trip.  I couldn't let it stop me this time.  'Here, take my hand, you'll be OK.  Just take it easy', said Gareth.  'Nope, I'm getting down those 150 bloody steps and out the other side as quick as I possibly can!' I said.  So I did and rushed out the other side to - an enormous group of school kids out on a field trip.  Hmm, so much for being the most romantic beach! It didn't worry me too much but Gareth seemed really quite furious to see them.  To be honest, there wasn't much we could really do anyway though.  Although it was only half an hour past low tide the water had already come in too fast for us to be able to explore the beach fully - and besides, to get onto the sand you first had to scramble your way across a large stretch of unstable and very slippery rocks.  As I said before, Mrs Cargill would have had to be one very game woman!  The school kids, Gareth and I and a few other tourists all did our best but it was just too unsafe and none of us relished the idea of having to get ourselves or each other back up that track with a broken leg.  For anyone reading this, to attempt Tunnel Beach you really need to be fit and well.  Definitely not recommended for small children or the elderly!

Us - right after Gareth popped the question!

'Come on then, we might as well go', sighed Gareth and I duly bolted my way back through the tunnel and out onto the path.  It really didn't worry me that things hadn't gone quite to plan, or the beach hadn't been as easy to get to as we had thought, but Gareth seemed really upset about it.  'It's fine!' I assured him.  'Well - how about we go up this cliff over here then, we can do that at least', he smiled.  That was fine with me, so off we went, climbing up until we stood looking far out to sea, with the waves crashing on the little beach which had eluded us below.  'This is lovely', I said - and as I did so, something happened.  Gareth pulled out a ring and went down on one knee!  'I would love for you to be my wife', he smiled up at me.  So that's why he'd been so agitated!  Lucky I wasn't standing closer to the edge of the cliff or I might have fallen off with surprise!  But of course I said yes and I don't know whether it was because I was fitter than I thought or because I was so ridiculously happy but I didn't find the hike back up to the top bad at all, I wasn't even puffed!  So is Tunnel Beach the most romantic beach in NZ?  In all honesty, not really, it's the story which makes it so.  But it will always be special to us from now on!


  1. Jackie I loved this post. So beautifully written, I felt I was right there with you. And of course congratulations, wishing you both every happiness.

  2. Congratulations to you both. Sounds like the perfect ending to a couple of great days.

  3. Congratulations. So happy for you, you made me smile.