South Dunedin

South Dunedin beckons

Dunedin is well-known for its heritage buildings and scenic coastline, which is home to albatrosses and seals. Then there’s the iconic Dunedin Railway Station and Larnach Castle, as well as the Otago Peninsula – all enticing and popular with visitors. However, even if you’ve visited recently and soaked in these experiences, Denise Stephens finds plenty more to explore around Dunedin’s lesser-known southern suburbs.

There’s plenty more to discover around Dunedin, where a day trip from the city to the ocean will take you from reminders of the city’s Victorian heritage to memorable scenic walks overlooking the ocean. It’s well worth venturing a little south to continue your exploration of this region, which is steeped in history and architectural and natural beauty.

Memories of the Victorian Era

South Dunedin
Ornate Victorian gravestones in the Southern Cemetary, Dunedin’s oldest

Just south of the city, the Southern Cemetery (opened in 1858) is Dunedin’s oldest and final resting place of many early citizens. Ornate sculpted gravestones mark the graves of distinguished people such as the Theomin family of Olveston, Presbyterian ministers, and a Polish prince. Some gravestones note the cause of death or list great achievements in life, while signs by many soldiers’ graves describe their service and bravery.

Many other people are buried here, too, and some interesting stories lie behind unremarkable-looking headstones.

I went on a fascinating tour with Gregor Campbell of Darkest Dunedin, who has meticulously researched the stories of the deceased. For over two hours, he led us along tree-lined paths up and down the hillside, stopping at graves to tell us about colourful characters and tragic deaths, with snippets of Dunedin history thrown in.

Alongside notable people, we heard about forgotten people such as Margaret, a housemaid beaten to death. Her employer was tried for murder but not convicted, and Gregor noted that murderers sometimes did get away with it.

I learned a new word from Gregor – taphophile, or lover of cemeteries. Even for non-taphophiles, the Southern Cemetery is a beautiful place to explore independently with its mature deciduous trees making it a cool green oasis in summer and displaying stunning golden foliage in autumn.

Restored Industrial Heritage

South Dunedin
Volunteers have restored the machinery inside the Dunedin Gasworks Museum

The Dunedin Gasworks Museum is unique in New Zealand, and one of only a few in the world. The gasworks produced Dunedin’s gas supply until 1987 and, although some parts of the complex were demolished, dedicated volunteers managed to save some of the buildings and machinery that are now part of the museum.

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Entering the gate, the first thing visitors see is the circular frame of a gas holder, once a common sight in New Zealand cities. Inside the old brick buildings, there is a fascinating array of industrial machinery and pipes, all preserved and restored by volunteers. Sometimes they even fire up the machines, but they weren’t running when I visited. I went on a tour led by a volunteer, Bill, who used to work for the gas company. As we walked around the gasworks, he explained what each machine did in the process of producing and purifying gas.


As well as the gasworks machinery, the museum has a collection of retro domestic appliances. With Dunedin converting to natural gas later than other cities, Bill recalled working on these old stoves and heaters in people’s homes. For me, it brought back memories of early flats and elderly relatives’ homes.

Taking in the views

South Dunedin
From John Wilson Ocean Drive, there are lovely views towards Lawyers Head

Moving on from the Gasworks Museum, I headed towards the beach. A long strip of sand stretches from St Clair through St Kilda to Lawyers Head.

At the start of John Wilson Ocean Drive in St Kilda, there was a playground with cute dinosaur-themed play equipment. I walked further up the road that runs above the beach, watching the surf roll in and enjoying unobstructed views out to sea. It’s a popular route for joggers and dog walkers, with vehicle access restricted to a few hours on weekdays.

While it’s possible to walk all the way to Lawyers Head where there’s a lookout, I decided to head down a track winding through shrubby plants, which met overhead. The track came out onto a section of beach almost surrounded by rocks.

Signs warned that there might be wildlife in the area, and I scanned the rocks for signs of life. Although seals and sea lions are regular visitors, unfortunately, none were there that day, so I turned and headed along the beach towards St Clair. The walk up to Lawyers Head can take an hour but there’s an easy walk at the St Clair end of the beach, which only takes 20 minutes. On another day, I visited Second Beach, going up the path by the saltwater pool. Turning the corner, the view was completely different from the long sandy stretch of beach at
St Clair.

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Second Beach is a small rocky cove with ridged formations carved into the cliffs. It looked wild and bleak, but some intrepid surfers were catching the waves by the point. At the end of this walk, the view looks along the coast to the Otago Peninsula.

An Ocean Beach

South Dunedin
The Tunnel Beach track skirts massive sandstone sea arches and a concealed beach

After walking the length of the beach, I arrived at St Clair and indulged in a coffee at one of the cafés. Sitting on one of the park benches along the Esplanade, I relaxed in the sun and looked at the activity around me.

The white-sand beach here is popular with surfers, and many of them were out on the water. Beginner surfers were clustered around a surf school kiosk. A few hardy souls were swimming in the chilly waters, but more were at the heated saltwater pool. Families headed down to the beach to walk their dog or to the nearby playground with their children.

Although the beach is only 15 minutes from the centre of Dunedin, the rugged coastline and fresh breeze blowing off the ocean made me feel far away from the city. Sometimes small journeys yield sizeable results.

5 must-dos

  1. Go for a swim year-round at St Clair in the sea if it’s warm or at the heated saltwater pool in cooler weather.
  2. Keep an eye out for sea lions. If you don’t spot a live one, look for the statue of ‘Mum’ who visited Dunedin for many years.
  3. Admire the heritage brick buildings and steel gas holders still standing at the Dunedin Gasworks Museum.
  4. Learn more about Dunedin’s returned soldiers in the Southern Cemetery where their graves are marked with white crosses and information boards.
  5. Take in the view and breathe some sea air from one of the oceanfront walks.

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