Park in peninsula wildlife sweet spot

If you are sick of city life take a 20km drive down Otago Peninsula from Dunedin to Portobello to find the perfect escape. Shawn McAvinue visits Portobello Village Tourist Park.

If you are sick of city life take a 20km drive down Otago Peninsula from Dunedin to Portobello to find the perfect escape. Shawn McAvinue visits Portobello Village Tourist Park.

Sherryl (66) and Kevin (68) Charles turned a 1.2ha paddock on Otago Peninsula into Portobello Village Tourist Park 22 years ago and have been running it ever since.

The couple decided to start the camping ground after spending 10 years travelling around Australia with their two young boys, the family's abode alternately a caravan and a house bus.

''Kevin worked testing pipelines and he got work everywhere and we followed him around,'' Mrs Charles said.

The couple returned to Otago so the boys could have some stability when they started high school.

The family had lived in many camping grounds and knew the difference between the good and the bad.

There were two criteria for a great camping ground.

''The first one is being really tough at the top and accepting no nonsense from guests or children. It's about being fair and firm.''

A strict curfew was enforced to ensure guests had a good night's sleep.

The sound of a ''lovely big set of keys'' being shaken around the camping ground at 10.30pm signals the enforced bedtime.

The tourists have too much to see on the peninsula the next day to be staying up and sleeping in, Mrs Charles says.

The second essential was providing ''really nice'' bathrooms, she said.

The guestbook in the reception reveals the clientele enjoying the sparkling bathrooms and sound sleep in the 23 powered and 23 unpowered camping areas, 11 self-contained units and three backpacker rooms are mostly from abroad.

The bookshelf holding swapped reading material confirms this, a Hungarian translation of a Stephen King novel and a German translation of one of John Grisham's offerings among the reading material on offer.

There were few Kiwis' names in the guestbook, she said.

''It's been like that from day one. My theory is these folks come from massive populations and when they are travelling in a country like New Zealand, the wilderness is what has drawn them - they don't want cities because they've got them.''

New Zealanders wanted to holiday in places with a greater availability of family entertainment, such as Queenstown and Wanaka.

Most tourists come to Portobello for wildlife spotting on the peninsula - mainly the albatross, penguins, seals and sea lions.

She could provide campers with a map for an eight-hour hike to see wildlife but warned penguins were not as plentiful on the peninsula as in the past.

There were about 40 penguins at Sandfly Bay for tourists to see 22 years ago. - ''but now they'll be lucky if they see 10 pair''. She recommended tourists ''bite the bullet'' and take a penguin tour - ''the tours that are offered here are first class.''

Hosting campers was a satisfying way of making a living, she said.

''It is a wonderful life. The people we meet are great fun.''

French tourists Thomas Bousnane (23), of Dammartin-en-Goele, and Laetitia Bricout (23), of Esbly, parked their camper van, which they named ''Van Halen'' at the camping ground for a night.

Miss Bricout said they had stopped off in Portobello because they preferred the countryside to the city.

The Meachem family, Dhugal, wife Josephine, daughter Aoife and son Orin, parked their van up at the camping ground for two nights, the attraction being that it was ''the exact opposite'' of where they lived - Hong Kong.

The family had not planned any activities but Orin wanted to expand his knowledge of penguins.

''We tend to wing stuff in life,'' Mr Meachem said.

Getting there - high or low road
Portobello Village Tourist Park, at 27 Hereweka St, is near Portobello Village.

The village can be accessed via the winding sealed Portobello Rd that runs along Otago Harbour or on the more twisting, elevated and scenic route via Highcliff Rd, which connects Portobello to Dunedin and crosses peninsula hill ridges.

Peninsula wildlife
• The yellow-eyed penguin
• New Zealand sea lions
• The northern royal albatross
• The little blue penguin
• New Zealand fur seal

Portobello is an outlying suburb of Dunedin about 20km along the harbour side of Otago Peninsula. Portobello Village Tourist Park is located about 400m from the centre of Portobello - an easy seven-minute walk.

Portobello has a hotel with bistro and sweet shop, an art gallery, a ceramic hen shop, a wonderful children's playground, a restaurant, a ''lovely little'' cafe, a ''wonderfully fully stocked'' general store and an ''award-winning'' fish and chip shop.

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