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Nature within the city

Royal albatross, yellow-eyed penguins, sea lions - Dunedin's wildlife variety is amazing. Even more surprising is the fact that it is all within city limits, says SUMITRA SENAPATHY

SEALS for breakfast, albatrosses for lunch, penguins for dinner ... Not to eat, of course, but to watch and admire. They are among Dunedin's wildlife treats - a smorgasbord that will take more than a day to savour. By having at hand such rare and special birds and animals as royal albatrosses, yellow-eyed penguins and Hooker's sea lions, Dunedin proclaims itself the wildlife capital of New Zealand. The boast is not without evidence. The astonishing thing about the nature of Dunedin is its diversity. What is more, it is all within city limits.

Dunedin is a busy, elegant city not far from the Land of Oz where the world's biggest albatross chicks perch on untidy nests, waiting for mum to come home; where a few kilometres from the suburbs, the rarest penguins on earth toddle off down the sand every morning for another hard day at the office. This is New Zealand's Edinburgh of the South, an intriguing blend of university-town counter-culture, dour Scottish architecture and wild natural surroundings. On the South Island's far southeast coast, Dunedin, a city of 120,000, clusters prettily around the inner end of a narrow harbour, sheltered by the Otago Peninsula, a 30 km long finger poking out into the ocean.

While entirely within the city's borders, the peninsula is a land apart - dry stone walls enclose green and rolling sheep fields, narrow roads link quaint seaside settlements, surf crashes on remote beaches and roadside signs announce the presence of a talented creative community of weavers and writers, potters and painters. Take the high road and you are in Scotland - the graceful pile of stones that is Larnarch Castle might adorn any misty hill above Loch Lomond or Loch Ness. Take the low road and you are back on a breezy Southern Hemisphere coastline, where sea lions rumble with displeasure if you get too close and screaming seabirds wheel on the wind.

On the peninsula's tip is Taiaroa Head, site of the world's only mainland albatross colony. Lying inside municipal boundaries, there is a well-trodden air about the place - a gravel track leads from the visitor centre to the viewing hide and a buried chainlink fence protects the enormous, yet helpless, chicks from a motley collection of feral pests, including dogs, cats and weasels. Each bird wears a distinguishing band and each nest has its own blowfly trap. Incredibly, there are even neatly mown runways to help the locals with their landing and take-offs. Even more odd is that directly beneath the nests are the underground tunnels, ammunition magazines and gun emplacements of an abandoned fort, built in the last century to protect the citizens of Dunedin from an invasion by the Russian Navy.

With any number of remote offshore islands available to the albatross, it does seem a peculiar place to lay an egg. But when the parent birds glide in from the sea on slender three metre wingspans, the majesty of their flight quickly overwhelms such petty observations. The life story of these royal albatrosses is anything but suburban - after doing nothing but sitting on a nest and being fed for seven months, the young birds choose a windy day to test their unused wings and begin an amazing flight that can last from three to six years, following the 40th parallel around the world's wildest oceans, never touching land, covering 500 km a day, leaving the air only to rest and feed at sea.

In contrast, the yellow-eyed penguins of the Otago Peninsula are stay-at-homes. Every evening they toddle up the beach to their nests; every morning, they waddle back to the sea. The temptation to ascribe human characteristics to them is irresistible but amusement turns to awe when the penguins hit the water and the funny hobble of an old man suddenly becomes a strong, purposeful underwater flight, glimpsed for an instant, then gone. We stumbled upon a collection of Mohawk-headed spotted shag, nonchalantly building nests on the vertical, windy cliffs of Taiaroa Head and watched a group of fat brown seals before being taken on a tour by local farmer, Howard McGrouther to see the yellow-eyed penguins on his farm.

Howard McGrouther was a 15-year-old when his family bought a 220- hectare farm on Otago Peninsula. His father, Percy, ran 2000 sheep on the property, which was also home to two dozen yellow- eyed penguins that nested in the paddocks. "The yellow-eyed are one of the rarest penguins in the world," Percy told his son. "We should always welcome them on our land and look after them."

One day, Howard was busy fixing a fence when he heard the faint squawk of a penguin chick coming from a deserted nest. He crouched down and gently gathered the shivering, emaciated, half- starved chick in his hands. Daily for the next five weeks, Howard patiently fed fish to the chick. Soon the fluffy, grey penguin gained strength and confidence and would waddle down the paddock to meet Howard and take food from his hands.

Howard soon noticed that the shoals of fish that used to swim close to shore now stayed further out, which meant the penguins were having to swim upto 10 km out to feed themselves and their young.

Many birds returned exhausted, barely able to make it back to their nests. Howard found his interest in the yellow-eyed penguins growing. He spent a lot of time studying the birds and their habits.

After six weeks, his hand-reared penguin chick was almost fully fledged. A few days later, when it wasn't there to greet him, he looked out to sea and saw several penguins ducking and diving. He knew then that the bird had made it, and grinned in delight. Howard vowed to do more to protect these birds. A few days later, Howard found a broken penguin egg in another nest, obviously eaten by a cat. He built a frame nest box from timber and placed them in a paddock near the beachfront. The penguins loved their new homes.

The design enclosed their nests on all sides except the front, where wary parents stood guard. Howard also began to shoot offensive feral animals. One hot day Howard noticed some penguins wading in a shallow creek on the farm, trying to cool down. It gave him an idea. Why not provide the birds with a freshwater sanctuary on the farm? Inspired, he hired a bulldozer to dig two big shallow lakes near the main penguin colony. The birds were paddling in them before the work was finished and some chicks learned to swim there.

From time to time, Howard and a local veterinarian would tend sick and injured birds in his old farm shed. In 1990, a biotoxin developed in the food chain, killing hundreds of adult penguins along the Otago coast. Dozens of chicks faced starvation and Howard's shed couldn't take them all. Hastily, he threw together some farm gates to form an enclosure - and Howard's penguin hospital was born. That year, Howard and wife Elizabeth hand- reared nearly 50 chicks, filleting 80 kg of fish a day. Howard hardly slept, but whenever he felt like giving in, he remembered his father's exhortation to look after the birds, and carried on.

In 1991, the McGrouthers named their farm Penguin Place and opened it to tourists. Today, there are almost 200 adult penguins in two colonies on their farm, living with 3000 merino sheep. They get some 60,000 visitors a year and have also won the British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Award. With the proceeds, they built a new penguin hospital. Penguin Place clearly demonstrates that farming, conservation and tourism can work hand in hand in New Zealand.

Albatrosses, penguins, seals - the life of this urban peninsula are focussed on the sea and discovering it from the sea is rewarding. Several companies offer guided kayak explorations on the inner and outer coasts. But if time and energy is in short supply, the Monarch cruise passes close to Taiaroa Head, within sight and smelling range of Stewart Island shags, perched on their mud nests, and Kiwi fur seals lazing contently on the shore rocks. Dunedin can sure dish up a range of natural attractions, some of them are truly unique. For those who are interested in nature tourism in Kiwi land, Dunedin deserves to be at the top of the menu.

When you are done with nature, a short drive back along the peninsula takes you back to the raucous student pubs or delicatessens of Dunedin. The most attractive thing about Dunedin is that it's a very old place for New Zealand, and it's filled with youth. People are having a good time here, and it shows on their faces. Makes you wonder why you live elsewhere.

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