On Location: Dunedin & Waitati

The second Penrose & Pyke Mystery, Murder Most Melancholy, is set in and around Dunedin, in the South Island of New Zealand. I hope this post will help readers to get a feel for the locations in the story, for those who don’t know the area.

Dunedin is known for its steep terrain, scenic harbour, wildlife, Scottish heritage and Victorian buildings, amongst other things.

This harbour photo was taken at Signal Hill (328m), well below the peak of Mt Cargill (676m).

In the story, Anne Macmillan’s house is on High Street, which had several real resident doctors and was not far from the city centre. The photo on the left shows Dr Colquhoun’s house, built in 1895. The middle photo gives a sense of the layers of houses strung up hillsides. While it doesn’t feature in the story, residents and visitors all know Baldwin Street (right), which is famous for being the steepest street in the world (or infamous, if you suffer from vertigo or weak thigh muscles).

The fictional action begins on the train between Dunedin city and the small coastal settlement of Waitati (about 20km north of the city). The main railway line north of Dunedin, completed in 1878, was a feat of engineering over rugged terrain. At the sheer cliff featured in the story, a rock shelf for the train tracks had to be hacked out from the cliff using picks and chisels by men slung down from the top on ropes. You can see the modern tunnel on the centre-left of the photo and the cut of the train line running across the cliff, towards the entrance to the inlet, with its sandbar and island.

The Lothians blog has a marvellous description of the first journey from Christchurch to Dunedin (https://the-lothians.blogspot.com/2016/05/washington-and-josephine-open.html), which includes the following description of the cliffs:

The dizzy depths of the sea below which washes the foot of the rocks are enough to appal [sic] weak nerves, and I would suggest to all tremulous people who may happen to travel on this line to keep well inside the carriage doors. Having rounded the cliff, which is quite a quarter of a mile in extent, the dangers are not yet over, as the track has been hewn for some yards out of an almost perpendicular mountain side.

At one point, the train travelled over girders, through which the sea could be seen below. The more enthusiastic train drivers of the era sometimes ignored the strict speed limit, such that “Some prudent travellers chose to go by sea rather than risk their lives.” This section was later made safer with an extra tunnel.

The train still runs as The Seasider (https://dunedinrailways.co.nz), as shown below.

On the other side of the cliffs, the train descends to the village of Waitati, crossing the water of the river and inlet over two substantial bridges. The fictional Stillwaters Sanctuary in the story sits between the cliffs and Waitati, looking out over the inlet.

On the north side of the village, the train crosses a causeway over the inlet, after passing the Saratoga Hotel. The photo is from the 1880s, courtesy of the National Library collection.

The last photo shows the coastal countryside around Seacliff, before the rail route heads north to Oamaru and Christchurch.

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