The naked truth about a cheeky town

Bare aggression ... players take on the cold as well as each other at the annual Nude Rugby Test.
Bare aggression ... players take on the cold as well as each other at the annual Nude Rugby Test. 

Marissa Calligeros finds all sorts of wild beasts on display in a visit to New Zealand's South Island university town.

On my first night in Dunedin I turn on the evening news to see men, completely nude, training to play rugby in a beer garden.

Their bodies are displayed in all their glory on screen, not pixellated in the slightest.

Paired up ... yellow-eyed penguins on the Otago Peninsula.
Paired up ... yellow-eyed penguins on the Otago Peninsula. 

I sit bewildered in my hotel room, eating a bowl of Kumara sweet potato chips, when an advertisement introduces me to the 'Great Southern Man'. He's knocking back cans of Speights Gold Medal Ale, with a sheep under one arm.

Great southern men, indeed.

Such is my introduction to the university town known as “Dunners”, where grilled cheese with onion is considered a delicacy and one of the big events on the calendar is the annual nude rugby match.

At first light the next morning, however, Dunedin appears peaceful and quaint. The city centre is highlighted by incredibly well-preserved Edwardian church spires and Victorian architecture set back against high forested hills, at the head of a fjord-like harbour.

But looks are deceiving. Around one in five residents here is a student, resulting in a vibrant atmosphere, particularly today, when the city's priority is retaining the Nude Blacks' trophy. The town is humming with rugby fever. The nude match, which coincides with annual National Nude Day and sees the undefeated Nude Blacks clash with the Welsh Leeks, is the precursor to the All Blacks and Wales rugby Test.

During a morning tour of Speights Ale House I take the opportunity to brace myself for the afternoon of nude contact sport at the free tasting bar, where visitors are allowed to generously serve themselves from the tap. There's a theme emerging here.

In need of some carbohydrates to absorb my midday nip, I'm offered the Dunedin delicacy - the cheese roll – which consists of melted cheese mixed with French Onion Soup, wrapped in a lightly toasted slice of bread.

It's as repulsive as I feared, but I continue to munch on it as our guide James takes us on to Baldwin Street, the steepest residential street in the world, as officially noted by the Guinness Book of Records. Still eating the cheesy snacks, we opt to drive it, rather than walk. Why take the hard road?

Later, I'm one of hundreds of curious tourists among a 2500-strong crowd of rugby fans surrounding a university football field. The Nude Blacks are led onto the field by David “Bourkey” Bourke, a nude rugby veteran. On the field there is no shame and no inhibitions. The players take it seriously.

But let's be honest it's more a spectator sport of “stare and compare”. I'm not complaining, but I cannot say the same for the WAGS on the sidelines.

The Nude Blacks take the trophy again. The captain remarks, “It was a hard game.” Indeed.

At an earlier visit to the Dunedin Sports Hall of Fame, in effect New Zealand's national sports museum, I'm introduced to the smell of rugby - literally.

There's a small wooden box installed in the museum wall with the instructions, “Press the button below for a whiff of the odour of New Zealand rugby”. Cop that!

I regrettably oblige.

In the evening I meet Colin Meads, New Zealand rugby legend, nicknamed 'Pinetree' for his build. He talks of former glory days and makes the occasional reference to another rugby match screened on a large plasma television mounted on the other end of the room.

I ask him if the rumours that he trained with a sheep under each arm are true. He smiles and winks.

He's nonplussed about the earlier nude rugby match. “Nonsense,” he says. Now, there's a Great Southern Man.

I finally ask him for a tip on the night's match between the All Blacks and the Welsh. “Us!” he bellows.

There's cause for celebration when Mead's prediction is realised some hours later.

More Speights and three shots of tequila later at The Octagon in the centre of town and I've donned an All Blacks scarf and beanie and am attempting to sing the New Zealand national anthem in Maori.

Dunedin hosts a memorable pub crawl. The Octagon is the heart of the city's nightlife, but there are is also a casino in town and several harbourside pubs.

As I'm pulling on hiking boots the following morning I'm regretting my sudden spell of cross-Tasman patriotism.

Last night may have been wild, but it has nothing on the wildlife that beckons beyond Dunedin's city centre, in the green misty world of the Otago Peninsula. With gently rolling hills on one side and seascapes to the other, the peninsula leads to the city's thundering Pacific Ocean flank, where seals, penguins and albatross can be found.

I join Elm Wildlife Tours on a mini bus with a group of singing Welshmen (their loss on the field hasn't tainted their spirits).

An honourary Great Southern Man, Captain James Cook, is credited with the discovery of Dunedin's fur seals. His discovery drew sealers to Dunedin from the beginning of the nineteenth century. By the late 1830s, Otago Harbour was also an international whaling port.

We reach the edge of the headland to begin a long, steep trek to the beach below. The headland is part of a reserve on a sheep farm that includes a protected beach and foreshore for fur seals, sealions and penguins. We're warned of the slippery mud, but my boots take no notice and I reach the bottom before the rest of the group after a long slide.

One Welshmen laughs so hard at my misfortune, he too takes a slide. Karma.

We first come across a baby fur seal, outcast from a colony on the beach. He doesn't look likely to survive. It's near the time of year when the pups are weaned when their mothers return to the sea to feed for five months until November.

Turning the corner, onto the open beach, we are confronted by two giant, somewhat grotesque, sealions. They laze in their lard on the beach looking much like one of the Nude Blacks players after a clobbering tackle. The players and the sealions also share a similar roaring grunt.

The sealions are gregarious animals and enjoy each other's company so much so males tend to pair up when there is a shortage of female company. We watch two males passionately rolling about in the sand together; and they only seem to be encouraged by our cameras.

High above, the black and white Royal albatross of Taiaroa Heads, with a wingspan of three metres, soar in huge wheeling circles.

We fail to catch a glimpse of two females tending to their nest at the Royal Albatross Centre, but we're told the pair raised eyebrows when they embarked on a lesbian relationship earlier in the year. Together they successfully incubated a chick after its father disappeared.

Taiaroa Head, the only mainland breeding colony, has become quite the meeting place for female albatross. Females have nested here together in two previous breeding seasons.

The latest pair had tried nesting with a male albatross during two other seasons, but the threesome did not work out.

The albatross are not the only species exploring same-sex relationships. Two male yellow-eyed penguins – and endangered species like the albatross – are currently incubating an egg.

Seeing the impressive creatures so close in the flesh moving. This is a rare opportunity to connect with the coastal environment in its purest form. As the gusty winds of the peninsula blow my hair about my face I feel a connection with the wild side.

On my last morning in Dunedin, I take a stroll through the quiet Sunday streets. It may appear to be a sleepy southern town, but it has plenty of unexpected wild, and somewhat cheesy, twists.

This year's Nude Rugby Test will be held on July 22 at Logan Park, Dunedin. There are also several more nude matches planned to coincide with Dunedin's Rugby World Cup matches in September and October.

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

FAST FACTS

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand flies to Dunedin via Christchurch from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. Seat only Sydney to Dunedin return fares start from $530.

STAYING THERE

Dunedin City Hotel is a stylish hotel with rooms that offer great views over Dunedin's nineteenth century buildings. It's also earned a four-star-plus Qualmark rating, as well as the Enviro-Silver rating in recognition of its environmental awareness. www.scenichotels.co.nz

EATING THERE

New Zealand's only castle, Larnach Castle is a short drive from Dunedin with a warm winter menu of fresh, local produce to delight. I recommend the tomato soup. The castle was built in 1871 by merchant baron William Larnach and has since been lovingly restored by Margaret Barker. www.larnachcastle.co.nz

TOURING THERE

Elm Wildlife Tours offers daily tours around the Otago Peninsula. Tours run for five to six hours and take place in over the late afternoon/early evening when penguins and sea lions are most active. Prices start from $NZ95 per person. See www.elmwildlifetours.co.nz

Take a journey in a Classic Jaguar Limousine. You will greatly appreciate the heated seats and choice of music for the 30-kilometre journey from the airport. Chauffeur Steve will also gladly give you a running commentary of Dunedin's history both fact and legend. www.classicjaguar.co.nz

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