An island in the distant past, Otago Peninsula retains an identity peculiarly its own. Given Dunedin's status as a wildlife capital, the Peninsula is surely central square, a show piece area with flags flying boldly and colourfully - the flags of rarity, special character and spectacular appeal. From a sharp outer end called Pukekura (Taiaroa Head) right back to the imposing bluffs of Highcliff and Vauxhall, the Peninsula is a gathering place for a strange mixture of animal life, some land-bound but much of it dependent on the sea. All roads lead to the Peninsula, it would seem. 'Magnetic' is a word that springs to mind, but 'strategic' is rather more accurate.
The Peninsula's indented shores lie close to deep water. Food is handy for the seabirds and marine mammals based on the beaches, rock platforms, cliffs and islets. Off the Peninsula, a series of submarine canyons narrows the continental shelf and brings deep water as close as 10km to the land. North and south of the Peninsula, the continental shelf widens to 30km. The canyons have long puzzled geologists. There is a theory they were created at a time of lower sea levels in the last five million years, when rivers extended out over the continental shelf.
Today the sea is getting its own back. It makes deep inroads into the Peninsula in the form of two large tidal inlets - Papanui and Hoopers. Their flatness is surprising amidst a landscape so hilly. The Peninsula's highest hills, in the order of 300-400m, are noticeably lower than the Mt Cargill group on the opposite side of the harbour, which were formed later in the era of volcanism and have been eroded to a lesser degree. On the Peninsula the hills are rounded and softened, a reminder that erosion, like rust, is persistent and, given time, will dismantle and transform a landscape. Helping to soften the landscape is a clay robe of loess - wind-blown silt.
The highest peaks are Mt Charles (408m), Peggy's Hill (395m), the transmitter hill (381m), Sandymount (319m) and Harbour Cone (315m). Landslides on these and other Peninsula hills continue the process of erosion. The Peninsula is especially vulnerable to slips. Half of the area's 9,000 ha is at moderate to very severe risk of landslides. About 500 slip sites are recorded.
There are basically two sides to the landscape character of the Peninsula: the ocean coast, wild and wave-tossed, interspersing dark uncompromising cliffs of volcanic rock with lonely stretches of fine shifting sand; and the harbour shores, mainly rocky and with many sheltered places, where the sea has a gentler impact and washes a rock wall protecting a main road. A hilly backbone runs the length of the Peninsula - about 20km. Maximum width is 10km - a transect between Portobello Peninsula and Cape Saunders.
Human settlement has favoured the sun-catching harbour edge, much-modified now by ribbon development connecting the villages of Macandrew Bay, Broad Bay, Portobello, Harwood, Otakou and Harington Point. Harbour ferries served these places in the days before tarseal, when the Peninsula was a backwater crowded with dairy farms. The dairy farms have gone but they left their mark in the form of pastures, some enclosed by drystone basalt walls, and shelter belts of Monterey Cyprus or Macrocarpa, the ubiquitous Cupressus macrocarpa. Highcliff Road, along the summit ridge of the Peninsula, has some magnificent stands of these trees.
The ferry-borne visitors of yesteryear regarded the likes of Broad Bay as a holiday resort. Today's visitors are quicker moving and they come for different reasons. They come to see natural wonders - albatrosses at the world's only mainland colony, a private sort of penguin called Yellow-eyed or Hoiho, and the fur seal and sea lions that are making a comeback on the mainland. People are attracted, too, by landscape features such as the collapsed sea chasm of Lovers' Leap near Sandymount (a leap of 220m!) and the wave-worn stacks of columnar basalt behind Victory Beach known as The Pyramids. They also come to see built heritage in the form of Larnach Castle, 302m above sea level, surrounded by lawn, flowerbeds and tall exotic trees, and the woodland gardens of Glenfalloch, which retain elements of the native forest that cloaked the Peninsula to the harbour edge. Glenfalloch's large matai tree, several hundred years old, is an arresting reminder of the forest that once grew here.
Although farmland still dominates the picture, the surviving patches of native forest and shrubland are mostly under some form of protection. They are cherished not only for their component species, but also for their capacity to provide a home for penguins, Jewelled geckos, Red admiral butterflies and other fauna.
All in all, the Peninsula is a nature precinct with a high profile. It is a busy natural crossroads — a flagship of biodiversity.
Extract from Neville Peat’s guidebook
published by Otago University Press