“You look cute in that sweatshirt,” I said.
“I hope I don’t look as cute as an albatross chick, or I’ll end up with a whole lot of pre-digested squid shoved down my gullet.”
“I thought you weren’t going to Google it.”
“I didn’t. Everyone knows what baby albatrosses eat.”
Maybe. But if ‘everyone’ includes Dunedinites, not many have actually clapped eyes on one: locals make up just 5% of visitors to the Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head (or Pukekura). Living in this lickable little city since I was seven, I’d never. Neither had the economist. “I always hoped to see one for free.” During his captaincy of a storm-driven ship, perhaps. While up the mast covered in salty rime, berated by a ghost crew and doomed to forever repeat himself.
Sorry, Coleridge, you didn’t deserve that.
Isn’t it funny how we’re never quite as interested in the treasures found in our own backyard? How many times have you driven past the railway station and laughed at the tourists taking photos? Probably not as many as me, but I’m a wee cow. “One day,” we say, assuming plenty of time remains for the things we needn’t board a plane to − not realising how special they are, or how much of our own story they represent.
It was robbery and vandalism that got me thinking about the contempt bred by familiarity. Somebody broke into the Royal Albatross Centre, stole money, trashed computer screens, destroyed mobility scooters, raided the restaurant freezer and threw any food they didn’t eat down the back wall.
“An albatrocity,” said the economist. And it really was, because if you were looking for an example of a harmless and happy existence, an albatross’s is a good one. They mate for life yet sensibly spend two years at a time apart (contemplating their navels and thinking up new jokes), only coming together again to make beautiful babies. Serenely meditating on a higher purpose, they accept what’s beneath them (the ocean, a substitute egg) as would the Dalai Lama. Spending 85% of their lives at sea, their very first flight is their first flight away; all the way to the coast of Chile − 9,500ks without stopping to eat or sleep. It takes 9 days and they do it before they’re even a year old. While human babies are still screaming and soiling themselves, in other words.
Right now the males are arriving, folding their massive wings up and back like DeLorean doors and lurching around drunkenly (takes them a while to find land legs), looking for a good site for a nest. If it’s substandard (and it generally is, an albatross nest is more a suggestion in grass than a robust construction), the female, fashionably late and laughing like a drain, will kick it down the cliff and build one for herself.
Exposed to the Roaring Forties, these steep and rough-hewn rocks, thrust up by volcanic agitation and pummelled by hurricane winds and pitiless ocean are nevertheless home to the ‘tireless traveller of the wild watery wastes,’ as the fabulous ornithologist Lancelot Richdale described the weirdest, most ungainly, and yet somehow noble birds you’ve ever seen. His efforts saw the first chick fledge from here in 1938 and the subsequent colony protected. As well as albatross, penguins nest under the cliffs, shags and sooty shearwater on and in them. Sheep graze a firebreak and try to reason with the red gulls. A huge blue container ship trundles out to the Aramoana Spit like an oversized toddler; a pair of tugs diminutive, encouraging grandmothers at its side.
Watching my first albatross from the vantage of the Armstrong Disappearing Gun emplacement, I realise the reason this place is so attractive is because it’s a fusion of settlement, militarism, conservation and maritime endeavour. A condensed history of Dunedin, a sacred site for Maori, a taonga for everyone. “My ancestors would have sailed past here on the Blundell,” said the economist, a bit teary with it. Mine didn’t. They were probably kicked out of Ireland for eating all the potatoes.
What I’m trying to say is, don’t put Taiaroa Head on your bucket list, bucket lists are for the dying. Just go − see an albatross, they really are otherworldly creatures, deserving of poems. Go, experience a place that belongs to us, a place where our story resides. Take a Sunday drive, see home before you leave the country. Go, even if it’s just so you know what the tourists are raving about.
The Otago Peninsula Trust needs help paying the excess on their insurance after being robbed and having their stuff wrecked and has set up a give a little page: https://givealittle.co.nz/org/otagopeninsulatrust