The Substitute Vacation

Part 2 (for part 1 Click Here)

We finally got out of Invercargill and drove south along the Scenic Southern Route to “unimpressive little Bluff.” As it turned out, that statement was a bit harsh for this quaint, quite peninsula. Bluff was steeped in history, being the oldest European town in New Zealand. Settled continuously since 1824, the old timber buildings would fit nicely on the coast of Scotland, the homeland of the area’s early settlers.

Bluff was a busy port full of fishing and oystering boats with a rich maritime history. Along with Stewart Island, visible on the horizon, the region is renowned for it’s oysters, which are canned under the names “Bluff” and “Stewart Island Oysters” to ensure the quality of their brand. Bags of cheap, fresh oysters can be purchased at the towns large warehouses and the lady at the Maritime Museum, the town’s popular tourist attraction, recommended asking for one or two dozen seconds. “They’re cheaper and they’re just as good. The shell may have a crack or they may be a bit smaller but the taste is pure Bluff Oyster.”

Bluff is oft referred to as the southernmost point in New Zealand (“from Bluff to Cape Reinga”). Bluff is the end of the road, so to speak, with Highway 1 ending at Stirling Point, but geographically this is not true. Excluding the smaller outlaying islands owned by New Zealand, the southernmost point actually juts out at Slope Point about 100km away.

As we left Bluff heading east towards the true southernmost point in the Catlins, the sun peaked through the shape-shifting clouds, livening our spirits. The Catlins region had an instantaneous, soothing quality. The rugged coastline, set against rolling farms and podocarp forest, was dotted with lighthouses and etched with an artist’s imaginative eye. Startling cliffs divided expansive beaches, as flocks of sheep ambled seemingly unaware of their spectacular view.

Our first stop in the Catlins was at Waipapa Point, the site of New Zealand’s worst civilian shipping disaster. The wreck of the SS Tararua claimed 131 lives in 1881 and the squat, white, octagonal lighthouse was erected three years later to prevent further incident. Down a winding gravel road, we drove past the small township of Porpoise Bay to a small car park at neighboring Curio Bay where we climbed down a short set of stairs towards a peculiar landscape.

Curio Bay shelters one of the world’s most extensive and best-preserved examples of a Jurassic fossilized forest. Arriving at low tide, what appeared to be a collection of rocks from above manifest into a series of petrified stumps and trunks, slowly softening with the changes of the tides. The texture still remains on the wood and rings circle the tops of the geometrically spaced stumps. After sufficient exploration of the ancient forest, we headed north away from the shore towards Niagara.

Kiwis pride themselves on the natural beauty of their land and the care that goes into its preservation is evident. Wandering through the Catlins, Felipe and I felt like the only tourists on this peaceful coast. We stopped for coffee at a café located in an old schoolhouse in Niagara. It appeared prepared to serve the masses with a spacious backyard full of benches. Yet, we were the only people there, enjoying the quite solitude we had come to know in the Catlins. The giant busses packed full of language specific tours for Europeans, Thais, Japanese, Indians, Americans and Israelis seemed to bypass this part of the country. The Catlins was our own private playground.

Felipe and I read about a remote cottage in the woods of Lenz Forest and Bird Reserve on the bulletin board at the Kackling Kea in Invercargill. Amused, we followed signs to the caretaker in the “second-to-last house on the left” of Mirren Street in the compact township of Papatowai. Slightly nervous, I ducked into their small garden and lightly rapped on the screen door. Mrs. Olsen approached smiling, and welcomed me into her home as if I was expected. A bit confused, I rambled, “so you have some cottages…I mean I read somewhere that you… See we were staying in this hostel in Invercargill and we saw this sign…”

Her smile grew as she led me through her cozy home past tables of heirloom tomatoes and into the kitchen where she and her husband were preparing paella. The thick smell of their hearty dinner had my mouth watering and stuck to my clothes long after I left. In the kitchen, she glanced at a blue day-planner, confirmed a vacancy, and then explained the ins and outs of the facilities. I opted for the cheaper and smaller of the two buildings at the Lenz Reserve, “The A-Frame,” but when we drove the 8 km back to Tautuku, unlocked the gate and entered into the reserve, I noticed that the keys were for the larger Coutts Cabin. Reluctantly returning the keys the next day I found Mrs. Olsen pruning the garden in her running clothes. I explained that due to a mix-up we had accidentally stayed in the larger cabin. She gave me an innocent wink saying, “oops, I do apologize but I hope you enjoyed it.”

I could not possibly convey to her how much I enjoyed that night in Coutts Cabin. Sleeping in our own private two-room hut with electricity, space heater, kitchen, hot showers, and no other human for miles – and for $15 a person, we were elated. It seemed we were not the only ones… the hand-drawn guest registry was filled with families gushing over the serenity of the place. Almost all entries were from returning Kiwis and I felt that we had stumbled upon a secret getaway. Located in the middle of a bird reserve, and surrounded by a series of interconnecting nature walks, I could have stayed in that cabin for days.

We spent the next morning exploring greater Tautuku. Across the road from the Lenz Reserve was the Tautuku Estuary Boardwalk, a short track through the podocarp forest into the mustard-yellow expanse of the estuary. There was not a cloud in the sky and the early-morning sun danced on the still water. Next, we stopped for a quick glance at Lake Wilkie before heading to the sizable Tautuku Beach where waves crashed time and again before reaching the shore, painting the azure bay in streaks of white.

We stopped at the all-purpose petrol station/information center/grocery store in Papatowai and, noticing the small store’s inexplicably large collection of Mexican goods, planned a quesadilla feast for our last meal at Coutts Cabin. After gorging on the food back at the Reserve, we sat on the porch watching fantail birds circle the cabin. I did not want to leave. We went back and forth on our plans all afternoon before deciding to make our way through the rest of the Catlins before dusk and heading north to Dunedin.

Nugget Point, our final stop in the Catlins, was home to a small group of nesting Hoiho, or yellow eyed penguins, one of the world’s rarest endangered penguin species with an estimated population of just 4,000. The Hoiho, whose is proudly featured on the reverse side of the New Zealand $5.00 note (opposite Sir Edmund Hillary), had eluded us thus far, but as we drove up the hillside of the Point, we noticed two penguins standing on a rocky ledge. Jumping out of the car, we raced down the side of the hill along the edge of a farmers fenced off land to get about 15 meters from the two rare birds. Further into Nugget Point at a lookout hut we had the awing luck of watching the Hoiho exit the Tasman, shake off, and waddle in groups to their nest.

Nugget Point was truly the quintessential image of the region, nestled high up on a hill between the thrashing waves of Molyneaux and Roaring Bays. A short path crawled along the cliff-top out to a lighthouse with 360-degree views. The sun was setting in the west, the hills were rolling to the north, wind whipped up from the east and to the south, a collection of boulders led my eyes out to the vast sea beyond. A group of seals, nearly camouflaged in their surroundings, toddled about far below and above, the clouds morphed from their amber glow to a purple haze before all color faded to dark.

We may not have made it to Milford – may not have walked the “finest walk in the world” or seen one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. We didn’t kayak through the fiords and stew in the misty mystery of Fiordlands National Park. We traded the fog for the sun – the stale, stagnant air of the wet forest for the salty sting of the ocean breeze. This substitute vacation may not have been the trip we set out for but it was the trip we got. In the end, I can’t complain. It’s hard to complain when you’re in The Catlins. The tranquility of this rugged coast and the quietude it demands sweep all worries and frustration to sea. For now, Milford will remain a burning mystery… but some things are best left to toil in the far stretches of my imagination.


4 thoughts on “The Substitute Vacation

  1. What a beautiful writer you are. I feel as if I’m walking right beside you viewing and feeling all of it.

  2. Mark, not sure what Milford has to offer, but this area is absolutely stunning. The Catlins is my kind of place; near the ocean, boats, beach, sand, rocks; the beauty that this type of environment provides. Sally would have gorged on oysters; I think I would have bypassed the Mexican food for more fruits del mar.

    Your exploits entertain and educate me. Thanks for sharing, Joe

  3. As usual, very vivid pictures come to mind (even without the help of the photos you kindly supply) and descriptive beautiful writing certainly brings the Catlins to life. I wish I could see it with you, but I feel as though I am. Miss you Everything.

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