What to do in Blueskin Bay, the jewel on Dunedin's doorstep

by Joanna Wane / 30 July, 2017
Photography by Isabella Harrex

Mark Brown on the estuary at Blueskin Bay, with Rabbit Island behind him and Porteous Hill and the tip of Warrington beyond.

Many a worse place might be found in the world than Blueskin Bay, wrote a traveller to coastal Otago in 1868. As Joanna Wane discovers, this was meant as high praise indeed.

The bar-tailed godwit flies 12,000km from Siberia every year to summer at Blueskin Bay.

Born over the hill in Port Chalmers, Mark Brown didn’t have quite so far to travel. But when he and his wife, Clare, settled here 40 years ago, their nesting instincts seemed just as irrational.

Locals warned they’d go bankrupt after the couple bought five acres on the flat where there’d been a Chinese market garden, down by the river. It cost $9200 and no one had ever paid that much for land in Waitati before.

Brown did a bit of gardening work, but it was Clare who brought in the money, as a chemist at the Cadbury factory in Dunedin down the coast. When they applied for a mortgage, the banks wouldn’t take her salary into account; in those days, women were considered an unreliable investment because they might decide to go off and have children. They got the loan, anyway.

Landscape architect Sally Brown, whose parents opened Blueskin Nurseries in the 1980s, with the restored St Brigid’s Church behind her.

Tucked into the southern scoop of the Blueskin Bay estuary, Waitati was a mini San Francisco back in the 1970s “and in scale, just as dynamic”, according to stories told of the time. Alternative lifestylers bought up cheap cribs, looking for soul food and an escape from the cloistered conservatism of Dunedin, only 20km away. The first issues of Mushroom magazine were put together on someone’s kitchen table, stuffed full of articles on self-sufficiency and organic gardening. A food co-op set up shop on the road to Doctors Point, and anti-Vietnam War protests led to the foundation of the pacifist Waitati Militia – a raucous lot who still stage uproarious mock battles in the township.

No wonder people mistook Brown for a hippy back then with his long, bushy beard, now brambled grey. “When you told people you were from Waitati, they thought we all walked around with no clothes on and smoked dope,” he laughs. “Some of those old hippies have grown up into real capitalists now.”

The Big Blue: Looking north from Blueskin Rd, with Rabbit Island in the mid-foreground.

The Browns began small with a stall at the gate: asparagus, silverbeet, courgettes. By 1988, they’d opened Blueskin Nurseries just off the main highway, later adding a cafe. Daughter Sally, who’s a landscape architect, moved back from London a few years ago and joined the family business. In 2014, she won the People’s Choice award at the Ellerslie Flower Show with a garden called “Passion”, created from more than 100 varieties of pink plants. Home now is a converted tramcar, a couple of houses down the road from where her parents live with Sally’s younger brother, Hugh, who has Down syndrome.

She’s full of ideas, says her father, rolling his eyes, but no prizes for guessing where that comes from. The pair’s latest project has been restoring St Brigid’s, a wee wooden church on the edge of the nursery. Built in 1895, it was owned by a group of artists for a while and streams of sunlight dance through stained-glass windows that were designed by Ralph Hotere. The Browns have installed solar panels on the roof which generate 60 per cent of the power used by the nurseries and cafe. Ponds are being dug to recycle water, and an edible garden is also on the drawing board, with the church as a possible venue for holding public workshops. And what better place to worship nature?

One of Waitati’s teapot letterboxes – a local tradition.

Like Blueskin Bay itself – named by Pakeha settlers after a local Ngai Tahu chief covered in traditional tattoos – Brown has weathered times of change. “When I first came, there were older people who’d lived here all their lives and never been anywhere else,” he says. Over the years, he’s seen large family farms broken up into lifestyle blocks; the post office, the general store and the railways have closed. Orokonui Hospital, one of the district’s main employers, shut its doors in 1984, followed a few years later by Cherry Farm, which had been built to replace the asylum at Seacliff, a few kilometres further up the coast.

At Waitati School, the roll collapsed before slowly rebuilding to a healthy base – celebrating its 150th anniversary a couple of years ago as Dunedin families rediscovered the jewel on their doorstep. Rural schools are a good social barometer and by that measure Blueskin Bay seems in rude health – although locals get a bit toey if there are more than 20 people on the beach over Christmas.

Louise Burnside, owner of the Gallery on Blueskin.

An easy commute to the city, the community is still catnip to what might be described as the educated eco warrior, among them Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei. Her stone and corrugated-iron home, known as The Castle, was the site of one of the Waitati Militia’s most celebrated battles, against the armed wing of the McGillicuddy Serious Party.

Chris Baillie, who manages the 300ha predator-free Orokonui Ecosanctuary in the hills above Waitati, has a zoology degree and lives in a straw-bale house off the grid. “Half the town are university lecturers,” one long-time resident tells me. Census data does show a higher percentage of income earners than the national average at both ends of the spectrum, with fewer in between (and some of those on low incomes eschew materialism and live on little by choice). “Guerrilla orchards” have been planted on public land for communal use, several houses have their own windmills for power generation, and electric bikes are for sale or hire at the Blueskin art gallery.

Blueskin Bay Honey’s David Milne, who runs beehive tours.

Scott Willis, who has an MA in social anthropology, is manager of the Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust, set up in 2008 with the aim of lowering the bay’s carbon footprint and eventually making the region self-sufficient in both food and power production. One of its more controversial projects is a proposal to place three wind turbines on Porteous Hill, which would generate enough electricity for the entire catchment of about 1000 households. A decision on resource consent is expected by early April.

The estuary is prone to flooding and the trust also hopes to trial a portable dwelling that can be shifted to higher ground as sea levels rise. “The whole focus is that we’re living in a changing world and the status quo cannot continue,” says Willis. “We can’t sit here twiddling our thumbs waiting for our leaders to take action.”

For local beekeeper David Milne, that means learning to work with the natural environment, rather than trying to dominate it. Originally from Dunedin, he was earning his living as a ceramic artist in the United States and farming co-operatively on the outskirts of Wisconsin when he took on his first bees. Now his company, Blueskin Bay Honey, has dozens of hives thriving among the native bush and microclimate of the valley, producing high-quality wildflower, manuka and kanuka honey in this “pure and beautiful place”.

This summer, Milne began running guided hive tours where people can suit up and try their hand at beekeeping, checking the boxes, removing trays, doing health checks and learning the difference between happy bees (which make a fizzy hum) or grumpy ones (which bounce off your helmet like bullets).

Roadside Attraction, where designers Hilary Rowley and Alex Wilson – “old punks, not old hippies” – sell everything from art and fashion to organic preserves. Both grew up in Central Otago and try to live and work sustainably. “The community is really cool here,” says Wilson.

The bees are fed with sugar syrup to help them through winter and treated for varroa, a disease spread by mites that’s wiping out colonies in the wild. Pollinators like honey bees play a vital role in producing a third of the world’s food crops and their loss would have an enormous impact on the way we live, says Milne.

“Without people to manage the hives [with varroa], they’d die out. But I’m of the opinion that life always finds a way. It’s a symbiotic relationship; you’re always working with them, not against them, to create life. And if you listen to them well enough, you know what they need.”

For UK-born ornithologist Derek Onley, the sound of bees and birdsong was rare growing up on a council estate in Southampton. Now an internationally renowned wildlife illustrator, he worked for the Edward Grey Institute at Oxford University before settling in Blueskin Bay, where he can bird-spot from the balcony of his home above the estuary. In The Hand Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, released in a new edition last year, his exquisite watercolours depict all 328 of our native and introduced species. 

Francesca Allen, one of the volunteers who planted 10,000 native trees at the Orokonui Estuary to create a “halo” around the ecosanctuary as part of the Living Legends project honouring 17 of New Zealand’s rugby greats – in Otago’s case, Kees Meeuws.

He’s seen albatrosses, southern right whales and rare Hector’s dolphins off Mapoutahi, where the inlet spills into the ocean at the end of Doctors Point Beach. A fortified pa – the site of an infamous 18th-century massacre – once stood on the craggy headland here. It’s one of Onley’s favourite places to sit, looking out over the ocean as dusk falls. “At night, sooty shearwaters fly right over your head,” he says. “It’s pretty scary, actually.”

By his count, a thousand godwits nest across the estuary on Warrington Spit, before making their long journey back to Siberia.

Robert Dahm with dogs Sam and Bella at The Barn, in the hills above Blueskin Bay.

Unlike those flighty birds, Mark Brown put down roots when he came here all those years ago and dug in. “I was never going to leave Waitati,” he says, “but the kids have dragged me all around the world.” 

Sally spent six years in London and Jock, the eldest of their three children, lives in Norway, where he works as a chemical engineer. Brown reckons the first time he and Clare flew over to visit them, he had to be anaesthetised just to get to the airport. “It was way out of my comfort zone,” he says. “Friends were taking bets on how soon I’d be home!

“When we got back, they asked me, ‘What did you learn, Brownie?’ I told them I learnt there’s people like us all around the world.'


 

WHAT TO DO

 

BLUESKIN BAY HONEY   

Suit up for a hands-on beekeeping experience where you’ll be taught how to care for a hive – and learn just how much humans have to thank these clever little creatures for. The two-hour tour costs $75 per person (pick-up from Dunedin unless otherwise arranged), and a retail honey store in Port Chalmers opens during the cruise-ship season. Ph (0274) 505-512, blueskinbayhoney.co.nz.

 

OROKONUI ECOSANCTUARY

This isn’t called Cloud Forest for nothing. But whether you see it bathed in sunshine or shrouded in misty rain, this pest-free haven protected by a 9km predator-proof fence is a birder’s delight. Rare species include kaka, takahe, jewelled gecko, Otago skink, tuatara and Haast tokoeka kiwi. Bookings recommended for guided tours, including a twilight option, but it’s free to drink in the view from Horopito Cafe in the sustainably designed visitor centre. 600 Blueskin Rd, Waitati, ph (03) 482-1755, www.orokonui.nz

 

GALLERY ON BLUESKIN

Louise Burnside has had a gallery here since 2007, showcasing high-quality art, ceramics, jewellery, sculpture, textiles and even furniture milled from local timber. Now fully licensed and serving coffee, wine and craft beers, the gallery is open seven days 10am-5pm, with a late night on Friday, and if you time it right, live music in the sun-drenched courtyard. 1 Harvey St, Waitati, Ph (027) 695-6211, facebook.com/galleryonblueskin

 

BLUESKIN BIKES & TOURS

Rock the eco-friendly vibe on a Volto electric bike (rentals from $20 for one hour and restricted to ages 16 and above) or book a guide with special access to the base of the Orokonui Ecosanctuary and the Southern Hemisphere’s tallest tree. Based at the gallery, which also runs package tours, including travel from Dunedin on the Silverfern railcar and ebike hire. Phone Nathan (027) 214-8294, www.blueskinbikes.co.nz; or Louise (027) 695-6211, www.beautifulblueskin-tours.co.nz

 

ROADSIDE ATTRACTION

Named after Tom Robbins’ seminal 1971 novel, this is where Orokonui couple Alex Wilson and Hilary Rowley sell their art and fashion screenprint designs from a solar-powered converted shed next to Blueskin Nurseries, open Wednesday to Sunday. You can also shop (and eat) at the Blueskin Community Market, held across the road behind the gallery on the first Sunday of every month. 2 Harvey St, Waitati, ph (021) 044-9623. facebook.com/Roadside Attraction

 

BEACH & BUSH

The 3km loop around the estuary, accessed off Orokonui Rd, is a pretty walk on a track built by the local youth group. Or head east along the beach at Doctors Point – past a network of caves, a blue penguin colony and the occasional basking seal – to Mapoutahi, the site of a fortified 18th-century pa on the tip of the headland. For more experienced back-country trampers, the Silver Peaks circuit is a challenging two-day, 19km round trip, which begins at the Mountain Rd DoC carpark, Upper Waitati. www.doc.govt.nz 

 

WHERE TO EAT

 

BLUESKIN NURSERIES & CAFE

If they haven’t grown what’s on the menu themselves, you can bet it’s been sourced locally. The coffee? Organic Koha beans. Hot chips come served in a terracotta pot to suit the cafe’s nursery setting. Snack on cabinet food or try the house special: whole baby flounder pan-fried in lemon and caper sauce. Open seven days, 8.30am-4.30pm. 2 Harvey St, Waitati. Ph (03) 482-2828, www.blueskinnurseries.co.nz

 

EVANSDALE CHEESE FACTORY

Described as “New Zealand’s littlest cheese company”, Evansdale began life in the late 1970s as a community initiative for dairy farmers wanting a way to use their excess milk – and it’s still run by the same family today. A few minutes’ drive north of Waitati, the shop is open seven days a week (10am-3pm) for sales and sampling. Try the Mt Cargill Tudor, a new cheese that’s been cured to produce a sharp, full-bodied flavour. 4 Duncan Ave, Hawksbury Village, ph (03) 465-8101, www.evansdalecheese.co.nz

 

THE ESTUARY

Dig for some cockles at low tide, then steam in boiling water with a splash of lemon juice or white-wine vinegar until the shells pop open. If you’re lucky, you might even find oysters. In the late 1800s, when the oysterbed was harvested commercially, the flavour of this Blueskin Bay delicacy was said to equal any of its South Island rivals.

 

WHERE TO STAY

 

THE BARN B&B

A charming corrugated-iron barn set on 10ha of landscaped gardens, bush and farmland in the hills above Blueskin Bay, with one of the best views in town. Host Robert Dahm will have the woodburner glowing if it’s chilly – and expect a warm welcome from his dogs, Sam and Bella, too. Suits a couple or family, with kitchen, laundry and daily breakfast tray, including fresh eggs with delicate pale-blue shells from The Barn’s resident Araucana chooks. From $130 per night (dogs also welcome). Closed for six weeks from November, when Dahm relocates to Clydevale for his annual stint as an AI technician, artificially inseminating cows. Clark Rd, Waitati. Ph (03) 482-1375  or (021) 022-29123, www.barn-bed-and-breakfast-nz.co.nz

 

GETTING THERE

Take the scenic route from Dunedin over Mt Cargill for a spectacular view as the road sweeps down to the estuary. Better still, leave your car behind and catch the train. On selected days, the Dunedin Silver Fern Railcar runs a Seasider service stopping at Waitati (and at Port Chalmers on return). Book through the Taieri Gorge Reservation Desk, ph (03) 477-4449, or online at www.dunedinrailways.co.nz

This was published in the April 2016 issue of North & South.

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