Travel Story Dunedin: street art and cycling in New Zealand's literary city

Photo of Brad Thompson

Keith Richard might not have been a fan when he popped by in the 1960s, but this South Island city is memorable for all the thing reasons. 

Keith Richards has some bleak memories of a day in Dunedin, or maybe he’s just confused.

“It looked like Tombstone and it felt like it. It still had hitching rails. I don’t think you could have found anything more depressing anywhere. The longest day of my life, it seemed to go on forever,” he recalls in his autobiography.

It was the 1960s and the Rolling Stone thought about standing on his head to “try and recycle the drugs”.

Funny thing is there’s a theory that Richards thought he was in Dunedin but in fact spent his miserable day in Invercargill.

It is hard to imagine anyone having a bad day in Dunedin. With its big university population, street art and status as a UNESCO City of Literature, it is anything but depressing.

There’s a unique mix of Maori, descendants of early whalers, Scots and Chinese, along with some of the finest examples of Victorian and Edwardian architecture outside of the UK and the natural wonders of the Otago Peninsula.

Dunedin is also a cyclist-friendly city and the Otago Peninsula is regularly named in travel guides as one of the best bike rides in the world.

However, if you are pushed for time and not a cyclist, a great way to see Dunedin and some of the peninsula highlights is from the leather seats of a classic Jaguar.

Steve McNulty operates a fleet of the beautiful cars and brings a lifetime of local knowledge to his behind-the-wheel commentary.

His great grandfather came out from Ireland as part of the gold rushes that started in 1861 and for decades made Dunedin the most developed and wealthiest city in New Zealand.

Dunedin has Australian Gabriel Read to thank for that. The experienced prospector worked in the goldfields of Victoria and California before his big strike at a place now known as Gabriel’s Gully.

Overnight, Dunedin went from a speck on the edge of maps with a population of less than 2000 to a boom town. The influx over the next decade included more than 4000 Chinese settlers, many of them having crossed the Tasman Sea from the Victorian goldfields.

The rush came and went but Australian Securities Exchange-listed OceanaGold continues to operate New Zealand’s biggest gold-producing mine 100km from Dunedin.

Steve recounts that not all of the original Scottish settlers were happy about the discovery of gold. They were serious souls who had sailed across the globe to settle on Otago Harbour after a split in the Presbyterian Church in Scotland.

The splinter group purchased land from three Maori chiefs in 1844 and the arrival of three ships in 1848 marked the settlement of Dunedin, the old Celtic name for Edinburgh.

The Toitu Otago Settlers Museum provides an amazing insight into the Maori past, the wild days of whaling, the early struggles of the Scots, the gold rush and the emergence of modern Dunedin.

The heart of the museum is the portrait room where the stern and steely faces of the original Presbyterian settlers look down on visitors from every wall. 

Settlement coincided with the development of photography and almost every face was captured for posterity.

The keeping of such comprehensive photographic and other records has allowed families to trace the intermingling of Maori, whaler, Scottish and Chinese ancestry to create the faces of Dunedin today.

The University of Otago, the first in New Zealand, was built on the back of the gold rush and is the foundation of the city’s reputation for excellence in research and literary arts.

As well as the City of Literature status, Dunedin is a member of the wider Creative Cities Network. The titles acknowledge that storytelling and education are central to its identity.

The Dunedin Street Art Trail is a work in progress which already covers wall after wall of the city centre with bizarre, brilliant and whimsical images, many of them drawing on the natural world.

It is not surprising, given the city is fringed by the Otago Peninsula, an area of rugged hills and volcanic landforms dotted with small bays and inlets that covers 19,000ha and remarkable wildlife including royal albatrosses, rare yellow-eyed penguins and seals and dolphins.

The 64km peninsula tour is not to be missed. There’s also camping, farm stays, motels and backpacker lodges if a day is not enough.

If Richards knew where he was all those years ago, he wouldn’t have painted Dunedin black.

(Picture at top: Dunedin Railway Station. Picture by David Wall/Tourism NZ.)

Disclaimer

Brad Thompson travelled to Dunedin as a guest of Princess Cruises.

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