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How Dunedin's colourful past is helping steer its future

A view of Dunedin by night from the Otago Peninsula. Photos/Supplied.

More than Speight’s, sea birds and the world’s steepest street, Dunedin has found its “quirk factor”. And, as Sarah Lang discovers, the city’s colourful past is informing its present and helping steer its future.

At 8pm on a Dunedin evening that threatens rain, a man wearing a black trench coat and black hat meets me by the “devil’s gate” – a black gate with pointy red tips – on Moray Place, the perimeter of central-city plaza the Octagon.

“Walk around the corner and into the Carnegie Centre,” says Andrew Smith from Hair Raiser Tours, and promptly disappears up some steps. I do as commanded, walk into the dimly lit atrium – and get quite the fright when I trip over a six-pack of beer (no longer serving its function of propping open a door). “I didn’t put that there,” says Smith, gliding down the staircase.

He’s imitating the ghost of Scottish-
born American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, reportedly seen pacing the corridor then descending these stairs by one of the building’s business tenants. “But he couldn’t be seen on the security camera,” Smith says.

The centre was originally one of 18 New Zealand libraries (and the most lavish) funded by Carnegie in the early 1900s. “Apparently, he wasn’t properly acknowledged for the donation,” says Smith of Carnegie’s ghostly visitation. “Or perhaps he prefers Dunedin to New York?”

This tour isn’t exactly child-friendly, so my son Theo, four, is skipping it in favour of books and bedtime with his father at our hotel. Michael, Theo and I are in Dunedin for the weekend to find quirky or novel experiences that aren’t as well known as some of the city’s other attractions. “Dunedin is more than the Botanic Garden, the albatross centre and Larnach Castle,” Smith says.

The 46-year-old has been running various tours for 20 years, and tonight it’s just us on the Hair Raiser Ghost Walk. Smith leads me into Victorian-era brick courtyards and down dark service alleyways to tell stories that draw on 19th-century family diaries, accounts from acquaintances, and occasionally old newspaper articles.

Left, Andrew Smith, from Hair Raiser Tours, evokes the ghosts of history. Right, the First Church of Otago by night. Imitating Norman cathedrals of England, the church was built between 1868 and 1873. Architect Robert Lawson's perfectionism meant the top of the spire had to be dismantled and rebuilt. Photos/Supplied.

We walk past the First Church of Otago, that spectacularly Gothic structure. In 1866, a bride stood up by her goldminer groom threw herself off the cliff beside the church. Known as “Silky” for her dress, she’s reportedly been seen several times since.

“In 1901, a group of credible guys said they saw her floating above the clifftop,” Smith says. “Once, a pale bride in a wedding dress passed my tour group and several people screamed. I didn’t plant her – she was an actual bride practising her walk for later that week.”

Smith, who would be great on the stage, says many people on his tours have shared otherworldly stories.

“One grumpy farmer, dragged along by his wife, said, ‘I’ve seen things, too.’ I was 100% a sceptic but now I’d call myself an open-minded realist. You can’t hear and see what I have without thinking, ‘Perhaps there is something else.’” What has he seen? “Once, on my Northern Cemetery tour, a strange wraith-like figure came towards us from the shadows. We ran!”

Sceptics shouldn’t necessarily shun Smith’s tours, because they’re less about ghosts and more about the social history of Dunedin. “This isn’t Spookers or talking to dead people,” Smith says. “It’s about preserving oral stories that may otherwise be lost – and taking people to places they would never otherwise have gone. The best of Dunedin is down an alley and around a corner. You’re learning its history by default.”

We’re in a service alleyway out the back of the former Cafe Chantant, where a fire started at 2.30am on 8 September, 1879, then spread to other buildings in the Octagon. Twelve people died. “The proprietor, Mr Waters, was found guilty of arson but not murder. Was it for insurance? Was his wife having an affair?” Mrs Waters survived. “People often smell smoke here. When I told this story during a tour, a woman screamed because she thought she’d once seen a ghost here.”

Circling back to the Carnegie Centre, Smith leads me into his hair salon Hair Smith (he likes a good pun). He’s turning the entrance space into a gallery of old Dunedin photographs, paraphernalia and local art. He’s also finishing his book Dunedin Is a Ghost Town to preserve his stories should he retire. “But I might be doing these tours aged 90, with a cane.”

Smith is wary of too much “urban beautification” in Dunedin. “I prefer ‘social historification’ or ‘dirtification’. To clean everything up would be, well, a crime. Dunedin should be careful that ‘urban rejuvenation’ doesn’t destroy the old, dark, quirky corners of the city. Because they tell a story.”

Vogel St, which has undergone a rejuvenation.

Dunedin’s compact central city lends itself to walking tours that span literature and street art, in keeping with the international trend of “experiential tourism”, where you learn about a place by meeting locals and listening to their stories.

Athol Parks leads four tours focusing on Dunedin’s history and architecture, and urban renewal. “I’m passionate about urban design, and enjoy sharing stories.” Parks, who has sideburns and an earnest manner, takes Michael, Theo and me on his new Vogel Street Walk, centred on three blocks of Vogel St in central Dunedin’s Warehouse Precinct. The former newspaper sub-editor, who is writing a novel about Victorian Dunedin, flips through a laminated folder full of newspaper clippings and black-and-white photos of the area.

From the 1880s, the precinct was the hub of Dunedin industry, with its wool, grain and other warehouses. But, in the second half of the 20th century, it fell into disuse and disrepair – a shortcut for cabs, boarded-up buildings, student flats, the odd business.

However, in recent years, the area has been revitalised in a way that honours its history. As Parks explains, that’s largely thanks to Lawrie Forbes, from local company Zeal Steel, who bought properties here, restored and repurposed character buildings, helped get the community and Dunedin City Council on board, and campaigned for zoning changes. The council now considers applications for “mixed use”, not just “large-scale retail”, here.

In 2013, the council rolled out its Warehouse Precinct Revitalisation Plan, and streetscape improvements including new seating, fencing, paving, planting and LED lighting continue. The former “dead space” underneath the 1976-built (and still used) Jetty St overbridge is now a bustling pedestrian hub with nods to the area’s maritime, printing and agricultural history. Think recycled parts of a ship’s bow (complete with portholes), a screen stencilled with printers’ symbols, and concrete sheep sculptures serving as bollards.

The council has also provided grants to support the earthquake-strengthening and refurbishment of historic buildings. Many restored buildings have retained heritage features, including distinctive brickwork, arched windows, super-high ceilings, and exposed interior walls and beams; they now house dozens of businesses. At 77 Vogel St, the three-storey Donald Reid & Co Store building (once a wool, grain and produce warehouse) is no longer boarded up with paint flaking off its walls. Repurposed glass doors lead into the HQ of global tech firm ADInstruments, which creates tools to help scientists and educators record and analyse data efficiently.

Along at 123 Vogel St, a strikingly restored building boasts a three-storey atrium, spiral staircase and floorboards reused from its former joists. Its tenants include an ICT school, a large law firm, and co-working space Innov8HQ.

Innov8HQ co-founder Heidi Renata says the precinct was the perfect location. “It’s igniting new energy into the city and neighbourhood.”

There’s plenty of foot traffic, thanks to the likes of a restaurant, cafes, grocer, burger joint, chocolate factory and winery. “And there’s lots of street art here, merging art with architecture,” Parks says. “The precinct is now a commercial and creative hotspot that retains its special historical character.”

But that’s enough walking for Theo. He’s been talking for days about seeing “the butterfly house” (Tūhura Tropical Forest) at Otago Museum. Theo’s eyes light up when we enter the 28°C, three-level space, with its waterfall and swing bridge. He stands wide-eyed as a blue butterfly, placed on his arm by a staff member, flies for the first time.

The 12-year-old enclosure is now part of the year-old Tūhura Science Centre, which has 45-plus interactive science activities. “Whoa, this is cool,” Theo says, running in.

His first stop is a 7.5m-high spiral slide inspired by the shape of a DNA double helix. In “The Void” room, with all its parallel mirrors, Theo stares open-mouthed at our reflections to infinity. But he lingers longest at the Animation Station, where he makes a frame-by-frame “stop-motion” animation by placing toys on a mini-stage, pressing a button to take a photo, moving the objects, repeating these steps multiple times, then playing back his “cartoon”.

Karitāne Spit. Photo/Supplied.
It’s easy to spend a whole weekend in central Dunedin. But it’s also worth heading to nearby spots like the small settlement of Karitāne, half an hour’s drive up the coast. Karitāne Spit – a sandbar that separates the Waikouaiti River from the ocean (until they join up) – points like a finger toward Huriawa Peninsula. Most of the peninsula was returned to Ngāi Tahu in their 1998 treaty settlement, and it’s now home to the publicly accessible Huriawa Historic Reserve.

Few know Karitāne history better than Alex Whitaker, a dreadlocked wood carver and local waka club stalwart who has long taken school and community groups out for paddles on the river, usually for koha. In 2018, Kāti Huirapā Runaka ki Puketeraki (the Kāti Huirapā hapu’s executive committee) chose Whitaker and his design student wife, Tania Turei, to manage Karitāne Māori Tours, sharing Māori traditions and history with visitors. They run a Māori Waka Tour, a Māori Pā walking tour, and a Southern Star Tour. We choose the former, as Theo wants to paddle a waka like Māui.

To the left, writer Sarah Lang, husband Michael and son Theo paddle down the Waikouaiti River on a Karitane Maori Waka tour. To the right are tour guides Jesse-James Pickery (front) and Alex Whitaker. Photo/Supplied.

Whitaker is joined by guide Jesse-James Pickery – yes, named after the American outlaw – a charismatic science communication student and former actor who speaks five languages.

We change into waterproof cover-alls and booties, walk to the river, and climb into the double-hulled waka. Theo paddles, in a manner, behind me, somehow not dropping his heavy hoe (paddle). He’s pretending he’s Māui, and that the other male paddlers (our two guides, Michael and the photographer) are Māui’s brothers. I’m apparently Turanga, Māui’s mother – though I doubt her arms hurt after five minutes’ paddling.

Whitaker and Pickery tell oral histories about the Polynesian waka that first arrived here in the 1300s, and Māori who paddled down the river on a “kai trail” then returned to Huriawa Pā for winter. The fortified pā stood sentry over a rocky cliff, withstanding sieges from other iwi until the late 18th century. A whaling station was built on the peninsula in 1837 and, at low tide, the whalers would wade over to Johnny Jones’ pub on the spit.

As we listen to this story, I find the jagged half of an old beer bottle in the sand. Minutes later, a barefoot Theo (his shoes got too wet) finds some slip-on shoes that fit him perfectly. “Māui left them for me!” he yells. Whitaker and Pickery swear they didn’t have a hand in the beer bottle or the shoes. We then plant a harakeke (flax) as part of the hapu’s long-term scheme to replace introduced plants with natives.

“I’m tired,” says Theo, at the airport as we’re about to fly home. “But Dunedin has really good adventures.”

Check out dunedinnz.com for all you need to know about living, studying and holidaying in Dunedin. Here are our picks for a variety-filled visit.

To do

A bone sculpture by Bruce Mahalski at the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery. Photo/Supplied.

The Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery

Street artist, bone artist and illustrator Bruce Mahalski recently opened this three-room museum in the villa where he lives. Interesting rather than overly morbid, it contains his lifelong collections of animal and human skulls, ethnological art and unusual artefacts – everything from propaganda posters to a photo of a “ghost” in a window.

Open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays 10am-5pm (or by prior arrangement), $5 for adults, children free. 
61 Royal Tce, ph (021) 032-9906, royaldunedinmuseum.com

A Dunedin street art piece by Phlegm. Photo/Supplied.

Dunedin Street Art Walking Tour

Art enthusiast Victoria Gilliand leads a two-hour tour around Dunedin’s 40-odd eye-catching murals, including five by world-famous street artist Phlegm. You can also pick up a map from the i-Site visitor centre and take a self-guided tour.

10.30am daily by booking, 
$30 for adults, under-15s free; 
ph (027) 389-9060, facebook.com/DunedinStreetArtWalkingTour

Orokonui Eco-Sanctuary                   

Spot native birds and tuatara at this eco-sanctuary 20km north of Dunedin. General entry is $20, or choose a one- or two-hour guided tour ($35 or $50); children are half-price. You’ll learn as much about plants as wildlife.

Open 9.30am-4.30pm. 600 Blueskin Rd, Waitati, ph (03) 482-1755, orokonui.nz

Dunedin Literary Walking Tours

Poet Beverly Martens leads a 90-minute walking tour ($25) around the Unesco City of Literature’s places of literary interest, telling stories about many accomplished writers who lived or live here. Visit The Athenaeum, New Zealand’s first private library, opened in 1851.

2pm by booking, ph (027) 444-4788, 

Otago Farmers Market

More than a place to buy fruit and veg, this market is a staple for locals on Saturday mornings (8am-12.30pm). Browse stalls from local producers, and sample everything from cheese, chocolate and crepes to craft beer.

Outside the Dunedin Railway Station, 22 Anzac Avenue, otagofarmersmarket.org.nz

To eat

Moiety restaurant. Photo/Supplied.


This tiny, trendy restaurant in a restored Warehouse Precinct building (the former Gresham Hotel) offers a five-course tasting menu ($65) rich in local produce. Sit at small tables – or on stools at a generously sized “bar” to watch the chefs create the mini-meals (and chat with them if you choose). The food is incredible.

Book early. Tuesday-Saturday, 5pm-late. 42 Queens Garden, ph (03) 926-9770, 

Urbn Vino

In the same building as Moiety is Brendan Seal’s new tiny “urban winery”, open Saturday afternoons (1.30-5.30pm) for tasting sessions and wine sales. Or catch him at the Otago Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.

42 Queens Gardens, ph (027) 256-5442, 

Vogel St Kitchen/
Heritage Coffee

Riah McLean, whose great-grandfather worked at a printing firm in Vogel St, now runs two charming cafes on the same road. Vogel St Kitchen (perfect for brunch) and Heritage Coffee (which has many gluten-free and vegan options) are in beautifully restored buildings with a deconstructed chic vibe and delicious grub.

76 Vogel St, vogelstkitchen.nz, ph (03) 477-3623; corner of Jetty and Vogel Sts, heritagecoffee.co.nz, ph (03) 470-1043

good good dunedin

Good Good

This retro-style burger joint in the Warehouse Precinct is seriously cool. Order a burger ($15) and sides at the green caravan “pulled by” a Holden Special.

11.30am-2.30pm, 5-9pm. 22 Vogel St, 
ph (027) 301-3269, goodgood.co.nz

Vault 21

Known for its sticky beef wontons, this restaurant in the Octagon offers tasty, fusion-style small plates (around $18), mains, sliders, salads and an inexpensive kids’ menu.

11am-late. 21 The Octagon, 
ph (03) 425-9181, vault21.co.nz

Prohibition Smoke House

Enjoy sharing platters of slow-cooked, smoky dishes (largely meat, of course) at this family-friendly restaurant. The portions are seriously huge (“small” plates around $16, mains around $34).

Tuesday-Saturday, 5.30-10pm. 10 The Octagon, ph (03) 479-2018, prohibitionsmokehouse.co.nz

To stay

The Terminus Apartments

On the floors above Moiety restaurant and Urbn Vino, these eight apartments are light and airy with exposed interior brickwork and a New York-loft vibe. From around $165 per night; they book out very early.

42 Queens Gardens, ph (021) 762-667, 

Scenic Hotel Southern Cross

Built in 1883, Dunedin’s largest hotel offers comfortable rooms above the Dunedin Casino, from around $200. The hotel also has a sister property in the Scenic Hotel Dunedin City.

118 High St, ph (03) 477-0752, scenichotelgroup.co.nz

This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of North & South.

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