Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Nature's Wonders tour of the Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

FEARLESS WONDER: A seal is at home on the Otago Peninsula property.
FEARLESS WONDER: A seal is at home on the Otago Peninsula property. Source: Supplied
VISITING the home of the world's rarest penguin, Tijana Jaksic sees why this property's caretaker is so fired up. 
For a second I think I could be talking to Steve Irwin. There's just something about him. The way he talks, the look in his eyes - not a single word escapes enthusiasm. Passionately sharing with us the property he's worked so hard to transform into a conservation area, Perry Reid is the kind of man that, once you've met him you'll never forget. A well-known local to Dunedin's Otago Peninsula, Perry seems to be a bit of a well-kept secret in New Zealand's South Island.

Jumping into the Argo, he hits the accelerator and off we go. "You guys are gonna love this!" Perry exclaims.
With four others seated in the back of this open-air, eight-wheel drive all-terrain vehicle, we're taking the Nature's Wonders tour around his property. With the khaki green colour blending into the natural environment, it feels much more like a safari over his 650ha of headland at the tip of the wilderness-rich Otago Peninsula. "The oldest person we've had in it is 103 and the youngest just five days old," he calls out proudly over the noise of the Argo. "This is 3.5 pounds on the ground - less than the human footprint. The sound mimics the breaking of the ocean."

A fluffy pup waddles closer. Picture: Tijana Jaksic.
A fluffy pup waddles closer. Picture: Tijana Jaksic. Source: Supplied
While it certainly doesn't sound like waves from within the Argo, the loud churning of the engine makes the ride all the more exciting. "Are you ready?" he asks, as he stops at the foot of a steep hill. Making it to the top in one easy go, we're now overlooking the property, with the spectacular Otago Harbour on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. "You get a 760-degree view up here! Isn't it amazing? This is our home."

Generations of Perry's family have lived here farming the land, and it's still a working sheep farm. But Perry has been slowly buying back more and more land to support his dream of protecting the native wildlife.
"In a typical day you'll see one or two species of penguins - up to five in the right season," he says. "You'll see fur seals every day of the year and a myriad of birdlife."

Spotting yellow-eyed penguins. Picture: Tijana Jaksic.
Spotting yellow-eyed penguins. Picture: Tijana Jaksic. Source: Supplied
It's amazing to think this all lies just 26km the city centre of Dunedin. Taking us back down the steep incline and along a dirt track, over cattle grids and through 10m-long puddles of mud, it's also amazing how smooth the ride is. "If mud splashes on you then you can have your money back," he assures us. Having used Argos for the past 15 years, he says wildlife numbers have flourished since they stopped using cars to get around the property.

We pull up just metres from a sunbathing fur seal but it doesn't even flinch. There are three others playing in the small pool of water beside it, their flippers poking out of the water as they roll and trace circles around each other. Before we've even get out of the Argo, Perry is pointing out dolphins diving through the ocean, followed by birdlife we would have never otherwise noticed.

Seals literally lie everywhere. There's easily 30, maybe 40, soaking up the sun. Wandering down the short 10m path towards a boarded-up trench he has created for wildlife viewing, there's more. Babies just 40cm long are curled up on the path and in the grass beside it. "They don't fear us because we don't touch or interfere with them," Perry explains. "They know we won't hurt them."

In the penguin-viewing trench. Tijana Jaksic
In the penguin-viewing trench. Tijana Jaksic Source: Supplied
We stop and stare at a fluffy seal pup, still light brown in colour. It's as curious as we are, inquisitively waddling closer until it's just half a metre away from my feet. Moving on into the trench, we can still see everything out the barred gap running the length of it at eye-level. "We're the ones in the cage looking out," Perry remarks. "We're the only place that doesn't touch them, tag them, feed them or interfere with them in any way. They come and go and do whatever."

All he does is keep out pests like weasels, cats and dogs by fencing off the property. He points out the whopping 200kg male seal overlooking the rocks and a natural rock pool filled with pure blue water where the others play. As we absorb it all, Perry tells us in a month it'll be mating season and other males will come into the shore to fight with the resident macho male king. "One of those could rip you to pieces!" he exclaims.
Shuffling back out, we pass the same curled-up seals in the exact same position as before. "Just watch out for that one behind you," Perry tells a tour member as he goes to take a step back for a better photo of the seal right in front of him.

Back in the Argo, we head up the mountain to Penguin Beach. "The yellow-eyed penguin is the rarest penguin in the world," Perry tells us. Whipping out his binoculars, within two seconds of scanning the beach below he's spotted one that we take turns to peer down at. "We get five species of penguins here. We have around 700 penguins altogether on this beach - a lot of little blues. "Pretty cool hey?"

Moving straight into another trench, this time with little sliding windows, Perry knows exactly which one to open. There, right in front of us sits a little blue penguin - the smallest penguin in the world. It simply looks at us; it doesn't run away or fret. "You wanna see something really special?" Perry asks us with excitement. "Come see this, this is really special!"

He takes us further down into a new section due to open this year. We wander down the steep mountainside, cutting through bush. There, just two metres away from us in a grassy burrow sits a yellow-eyed penguin perched on two eggs. "You are one metre away from the rarest thing you'll ever see in your life! And I bet you - I bet you - every single book you read will tell you that you won't see one in the day. "Seeing one of these in the wild is as rare as seeing a Sumatran tiger or a giant panda in the wild!"

The Argo makes the ride all the more exciting. Tijana Jaksic.
The Argo makes the ride all the more exciting. Tijana Jaksic. Source: Supplied
With the whirlwind tour coming to an end, we make our way back to the Argo. Motoring back to the main building, Perry stops in front of two sheep lying on the track. "This is our traffic jam in New Zealand. And this is our peak hour," he says, motioning to the view beside us.

He goes on to tells us about the conservation plan he has mapped out for the next 200 years across the property, a legacy his family will continue. He's quick to point out he's "not a tree-hugging greenie", but insists it's all about balance. "These are called the jet boat of the land!" And with that he finishes the hour-long tour with a 360-degree spin.

"We employ 40 people and I still take tours out every day.
"You gotta keep it real 'ey?
"It's pretty amazing isn't it? And you've only seen 10 per cent of the farm today.
"Isn't it fantastic?"

Yes Perry, yes it is.

Getting there
Air New Zealand offers connections to Dunedin through Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington. Dunedin is a four-hour drive south of Christchurch. For car hire from Christchurch or Dunedin.


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