Port Chalmers Seafood Festival
There are few operating ports in the world that are flanked by a Victorian streetscape. As I wandered down the main street of Port Chalmers, admiring the vintage buildings, I found myself salivating like Pavlov’s dog. The aroma of freshly caught and cooked seafood was mixing with the salty mechanical smells of the port, announcing that the inaugural seafood festival was well underway.

A busking violinist with a dancing cat, and Kaitrin McMullan the storytelling puppeteer met the crowds as they headed for the main wharf. I wasn’t quite late, but people had already steamed in on the Monarch and the Vivian J, or arrived by train thanks to the Taieri Gorge Railway.

Oputae – Ralph Hotere’s sculpture garden is in the shadow of the Flagstaff on Observation Point, overlooking Port Chalmers. Set in a garden full of native plants, the four sculptures once lived in Ralph Hotere’s studio which was demolished in 1993 to make way for new Port facilities. In 2005, that the Port of Otago and Hotere Foundation Trust landscaped the garden and created a new home for the works of art.

I have to admit I’m a bit of a gaping ‘but the emperors naked’ kind of gal when it comes to modern art. I prefer things that I can recognise and associate with, as opposed to the completely abstract. The writer in me always wants to know the story behind the piece of art. What was the context? How did the artist doing come up with the idea? What was their real inspiration? Did the pile of bricks fall over and need to be re-glued?

Interestingly, all four of these sculptures intrinsically caught my attention, despite my leaning towards the ‘artistic philistine’ end of the highbrow scale. I completely forgot about my camera, and it took two circuits of the garden paths before I even took a single photo.

1. Chris Booth of Kerikeri – Aramoana. For me, the name Aramoana conjures memories of walking out the Mole to the black and yellow pole lighthouse, and the 1990 massacre. To me the sculpture seemed part ‘old school’ power pole (similar to the ones that still stand on the West Coast), mated with a ships mast. I guess a shipping theme is appropriate for the Port Chalmers setting. Further research uncovered that Chris was actually making a statement about and a protest against a proposed aluminium smelter out at Aromoana in the early 1980’s.

2. Shona Rapira Davies - They do cut down the poles that hold up the sky. This reminded me of the Maori creation story where Tane created space for the world to grow by pushing Ranginui – Sky Father and Papatūānuku – Earth Mother apart. At the same time, in a more literal sense the figure seems to be breakdancing on bricks. I got a shot of smugness when I found out I was right on the money with the creation story, although Shona was also commenting on deforestation and the need for conservation.

3. Brick Column – Russell Moses of Palmerston North. I thought this was a little bit like a smaller more ceramic version of Len Lye’s 45 metre high ‘Windwand’ in New Plymouth, combined with the chimney at the Brunner Mine site just out of Greymouth.

Supposedly the bricks are symbols of the land and man’s attempt to tame and control the landscape. Turns out these particular bricks also have an interesting history. In the late 1800’s, the bricks arrived in New Zealand as ballast aboard ships that sailed from Scotland. The sculpture is also meant to reflect the history of bricks and was made in the shape of a kiln. The iron bar on top is from one of the Port’s now gone ship building sites, and like the ‘Windwand’ it once swung round in the breeze. Today it points firmly to towards the Port of Otago.

4.The ‘Black Phoenix II’ by Ralph Hotere - This was my favourite, it has an airy ‘Take your last breath before we go under’ feel about it. The word ‘Phonenix’ is literal, this is the actual hull of the Poitrel, and its keel really did rise from ashes to become a piece of art. It was once a fishing vessel that was caught in a fire at Miller and Tunnage (a boat-building firm) in 1984.

Given that this garden is free and only a fifteen minute drive from the Octagon I think it rates as one of Dunedin’s, possibly New Zealand’s hidden, sparklingly good gems. It‘s not just about the sculptures either, the views of the Dunedin harbour and the landscaped native garden are also matchless. 

They do cut down the poles that hold up the sky
The ‘Black Phoenix II’
Ian Church, noted historian and published author, led a bus trip to Port Chalmers to share some of its secrets as part of the Layers of Gold – 150 year anniversary celebrations. Today, Port Chalmers is the second biggest logging and container port in New Zealand after Tauranga. It held even greater fame in 1863 when it was the 3rd largest port in Australasia, with up to 9,000 gold miners desperately seeking ‘a little colour’ arriving every day.

The port was first known as the Koputai – ‘the place of high tides’ and was famous for re-floating unattended canoes. The area also has intricate layers of European history; literally, acres of the modern Port were originally dug out as dry docks then reclaimed to make the container terminal.

Tuckett’s Corner on the main street was the site that the Otago Block purchase was signed in 1844, and Frederick Tuckett was the Principle Surveyor for the New Zealand Company in the area. A plaque on the public library (once the Town Hall) also commemorates the landing of the first settlers in 1848. It was these settlers that gave the Port its name in honour of Dr Thomas Chalmers, a noted crusader for and creator off the Free Church in 1843.

The first cargo of frozen meat to leave New Zealand was packed into the SV Dunedin and departed from Port Chalmers in 1882. By 1889, the Port had its own Town Hall, three churches and the signal station was an integral part of shipping communication. Other notable sailings were those of Robert Scott, Ernest Shackelton and Admiral Byrd (all members of good standing at the Port Charles Masonic Lodge) which departed from Dunedin for their voyages to Antarctica.

Careys Bay, tucked around the corner from the Port is home to my favourite pub in the Otago region. David Carey was a lighterman from Waikouaiti and the namesake of the Bay and Carey’s Bay Historic Hotel, which was built in 1874 by Henry Dench - Mayor of Port Chalmers. The Bay has also been home to the Port Chalmers Navel’s, sea cadets, and the inshore fishing fleet has moored here since 1963. The other notable pub in town is the Tunnel Bar which is part of the Port Chalmers Tunnel Hotel. Opened in 1846 this is the longest continually running business in New Zealand.

To enjoy the salty air and higher vantage points I found walking up to both the Scott Memorial (in Lady Thorn Dell) and the signal flagstaff on Origin Point gave me a good workout for the day and some interesting pictures of the Port.

View from Signal Hill
View from the Scott Memorial