NZ #14: Dunedin

By: | Post date: January 9, 2010 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Countries

The rains caught me at Dunedin, and I didn’t walk around much. Even if the rains hadn’t caught me, I wouldn’t have walked around much. Dunedin is the one New Zealand city that the Lonely Planet does not include a walking tour for, and there’s good reason for that. Dunedin is absurdly hilly. I had pleaded hilliness hardship for Auckland; but Dunedin is hilly enough to claim a place in the Guinness Book of Records for Baldwin St, a residential street with a 1:1.286 incline. That’s 52°. What’s fearsome is, Baldwin St is only first among peers: there are plenty of other residential streets next to it, with only slightly less incline. And from a safe distance at the bottom of the hill, they look like nothing so much as concrete ski slopes, with cars precariously parked on them.

I succumbed to going on a bus tour of the city: I scarcely had the option not to. The droll tour guide noted that the urban poor used to live on the bottom of the hill, and the rich on the hill inclines, with the commanding views of the city. As the bus wheezed its way up a 30° incline, I could not fathom why people would pay extra money to slide off the floor of their houses. Horses would have found those ascents even more challenging than motor vehicles did.

Cable cars didn’t; but like just about everywhere else in the world, Dunedin scrapped its cable car system long ago. God speed the enthusiasts trying to bring it back: it would get use.

Inside a bus was a good place to be in Dunedin, both when the InterCity bus rocked up from Oamaru via Palmerston, and in the Town Belt of parkland around the city; because both times we got hit with hail. That’s right, hail. In early January. In the *Southern* hemisphere. I have told my astonishment in Wellington at realising 42 Below vodka meant 42°S. (That’s actually Marlborough’s latitude; Wellington is closer to 41°S.) But Dunedin is around 46°S. During the bus tour (in *early January*), the temperature dropped to 4°C. In Winter, they get to down –5°C. And this is a coastal city.

As an Australian, whose coastal cities have never known snow, this just plain does not compute. It’s like this is a different country or something.

I’d like to report on how the North European weather here turns folk into hardy Southern Men, fearless and stoic. But I’ll have to take the guidebooks’ word for it: I’m not interacting with the locals as much as I should be, especially not while I’m being rained out.

Dunedin is a college town: 20% of its inhabitants attend the University of Otago. This is said to give the city a liveliness and inventiveness out of proportion to a place of 110,000 people. But at least some of the students are home for the holidays, or rained out as well; so I didn’t get to see that side of things. Bath St, next to the central Octagon, is meant to be the local funky café street, like Vulcan Lane and Cuba St and South of Lichfield elsewhere. Maybe it was unfair to survey Bath St on a rainy Saturday morning, but… nah. Bath St was thoroughly empty. And the time of day is no excuse.

The bus tour went past many grand houses of Dunedin’s affluent past, and the sprawling grounds of the university, at least somewhat visible through the rain. But on foot, all I had access to was the immediate surrounds of the Octagon, the central square of Dunedin. (Well, OK, the central regular geometric shape of Dunedin.) The central octagon hasn’t worked out how to impress the tourists, like Cathedral Sq in Christchurch has: even the Tourist Centre has moved around the corner.

But the north of the Octagon has its portion of monumental buildings. The place that was housing the Tourist Centre looks imposing enough to have been a General Post Office, but I can’t confirm that from the tourist pamphlets. Next to it St Paul’s Cathedral, angular and slender and striving towards heaven. And in front of them both, the testimonial of Dunedin’s Scottishness, the statue of Robbie Burns, looking vaguely bored.

There’s something missing to the Octagon, though. Too many of the imposing buildings of Dunedin are not there, but are spread around Moray Place, the ring around the Octagon (which is truly octagonal in layout). That includes the Town Hall, the Courthouse, and the First Church. The placement of the First Church hints that the Octagon was an afterthought—though it can’t have been, as everything converges on it. Dunedin was built to be a Presbyterian city, and was designed in Presbyterian Edinburgh; but its First Presbyterian Church is not the centrepiece: it is off to one side of Moray Place. St Paul’s is not Presbyterian: Scottish Dunedin is presided over by an Anglican church.

There’s sure to be a rich story behind all that which I’m missing, and can’t google at the moment. Thankfully, the two churches look cut from the same heavenward-striving cloth.

The crown of Dunedin, though, is not St Pauls’ and Robbie Burns, at the north side of the Octagon. The crown of Dunedin faces St Pauls’ and Robbie Burns, down Stuart St, on the other side of the Octagon. The crown is not the Cadbury Chocolate factory—at least, not in my estimation, although it too faces St Pauls’ and Robbie Burns, and Dunedin is certainly quite chuffed to have a centre of chocolate excellence downtown.

I took the Cadbury tour, I’m embarrassed to admit. I am a chocolate snob, and while Cadbury is better than the horrors of U.S. chocolate (“Hershey’s Kisses: Would you like some chocolate with your paraffin?”), it’s no Lindt, and no Leonidas. The New Zealand specialties of Cadbury-coated marshmallow did nothing to change my opinion of the product. But Dunedin is credited with giving the world white chocolate. For that alone, they deserve a crown.

But the crown I have in mind—and this cannot surprise anyone who’s been to Dunedin—is Dunedin Railway Station, across the road from Cadbury’s. A glorious assembly of Oamaru limestone and Dunedin volcanic stone and Edinburgh granite, of Dalton tiled walls and mosaic floors and and stained glass windows, depicting the Passion of Thomas The Tank Engine. The most photographed building in the southern… something or other, the locals proclaim, and it deserves to be.

That’s an instance of “the most X in the Southern Hemisphere” trope, btw, which the Lonely Planet derides. (“How do you measure such things?”) It’s a way for Australia or New Zealand to claim primacy in something, without looking too closely at, say, Argentina or South Africa. I hope Argentina and South Africa don’t suffer from similar compulsions.

Back when Dunedin was the financial capital of New Zealand, it raised temples to commerce like Oamaru did. Its temples did not limit themselves to limestone, so they are more dour than Oamaru’s—befitting a city intended as a carbon copy of Edinburgh. The money left Dunedin for Auckland in the ’50s, and the main source of income for Dunedin now is the University of Otago. The tour guide approvingly mentioned that the downturn resulted in more of the temples being spared the wrecker’s ball than elsewhere: there was no call to build metal and glass replacements. But some temples did get levelled; looking around the Octagon, too many of them were in the centre of town.

The Railway Station fell victim to that decline too; it narrowly missed levelling when the railways were sold off. Trains still depart the station, and they go a lot further than at Oamaru; but just as at Oamaru, they are tourist trains, not trains for freight or passengers. And the railway station now hosts art galleries, wedding receptions, and tourists with cameras. It doesn’t look as forlorn as the warehouses at Oamaru harbour, but it still is not what it was.

There is a plaque at the entranceway of Dunedin Railway Station, with a sentence from Janet Frame, the novelist from Oamaru. It is her recollection, in a 1982 novel, of her arrival at the station in 1945, the first time she came to a city. She was in awe and terror of the bustle of the station—which wasn’t even as busy as it got when the cargo came in.

I might have grown to like dour, wet Dunedin, and I was delighted by the station. But awe is not what I felt.

Queenstown, where I am typing these lines with my poorest internet access to date, is an altogether different matter. And a quite different kind of awe…

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