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.

The Flood

Somehow I never saw it coming.  The next morning when the headline in the Southland Times read, “Southland on the Verge of Havoc, Rivers Overflowing, Rain Falling, and THERE’S MORE COMING!” I could not help but laugh at my blindsided excitement.  Naively, I thought I would be hiking the, “finest walk in the world” in two short hours as I slid my car within 10 km of Te Anau, the starting point for the Milford Track.  A young, pimply road-worker in a bright yellow poncho had the awkward job of ruining my day.  My questions found their way into his radio to some unknown other whose translated response came with a nervous grin.  All roads to Te Anau were closed, and the power lines were down.  Felipe and I did not know it at the time, but as we turned the car around in disbelief, 120 trampers were cuing for an airlift off the impassable Milford Track.

We searched for a signal as we stalled the stuffy Nissan in the cracker-barrel town of Mossburn.  I stared through a handprint clearing in the fogged-up window at amused townsfolk in rocking chairs at the town’s only café as I rang the Department of Conservation.  After the fourth try, the hasty woman who answered informed us that the track was not only closed, but also greatly damaged.  It would not reopen until next season.  If we wanted to hike the Milford Track, it wasn’t happening for the next 5 months.

The subheadings of the Southland Times on May 26th read, “200 mm of rain in 48 hours!  At least 15 roads closed!  Civil defenses on standby to evacuate!”  TVNZ aired footage of rescued hikers jumping out of helicopters on the evening news.

I suppose part of me knew that this was no ordinary shower.  Sure, It was raining hard, but it always rained on the West Coast as the Southern Alps trapped moisture off the Tasman Sea.  I must have known that the scene around me was not normal.  Mud-brown rivers rose to meet the countryside’s one-lane bridges.  Groups of sheep stood stranded on tiny islands, befuddled by their sudden predicament while fields turned to rivers around them.

Meanwhile, I drove my low riding Nissan Sunny onward, following the splotchy blur of a larger car, perfecting the art of the hydroplane.  My car was acting as both motor vehicle and hovercraft, displaying bolder moves than I thought possible.  If only I had one of those tacky duck-boats that usher tourists from land to sea in Seattle and Boston.

In the end, it would not have mattered.  Getting to Te Anau would not get me on a destroyed track.

We had spent the previous night in Queenstown after a scary drive down the winding West Coast corridor of Highway 6.  Crossing the Haast Pass, the deep green hills were blanketed in cellophane falls cascading onto the narrow road from unforeseen heights.  Everywhere we looked another waterfall, bigger, stronger, and taller than the last.  The storm eased as we drove past the Southern Lakes but resurged as we approached Queenstown (days later Queenstown was on flood alert as Lake Wakatipu poured out into the city’s streets).

The next morning we took our final showers, waterproofed our belongings, and prepared for an adventure of a lifetime in the Fiordlands.

It was not to be.

Hearing that the rain was easing in the south and with little other option, we headed down to the southern tip of New Zealand.  The rain continued it’s spectacular showcase as we drove through sheep country on a washed-out country road from Mossburn to Tautapere, the “Sausage Capital of NZ.”  I was hungry for some sausage and the cartoon sausage signs got me excited for a quick-lunch, but keeping in the spirit of the day, the sausage shops were closed.  We drove on towards the end of the road in the southwestern corner of the South Island.  In a rugged and forgotten countryside, we stopped at a remote beach in Te Waewae Bay, whose dilapidated swing set stood a testament to happier times.  Damp and dazed, wondering down the abandoned beach, the disappointment dug deep.  Weeks of planning and preparation for the longest hike of my life had all been in vain.  Felipe and I wandered down the sad beach in silence.  We barely spoke the whole day.  Our words would hardly have been heard through the sporadic, violent rain as we drove along the southern coast past endless fields of green grass patterned with puffs of white on the way to Invercargill.

The sardonic writer of Lonely Planet NZ had some choice words for Invercargill and the surrounding region.  “Flat and suburban with endlessly treeless streets, Invercargill certainly isn’t going to blow your senses.”  About the museum he wrote that it, “might be having a slight identity crisis,” and the shopping scene he remarked, “certainly won’t give shoppers a buzz.”  In regards to neighboring Gore he started with, “Poor old Gore…” and the section on Bluff to the south began, “Unimpressive little Bluff…”  The area’s own marketing spoke to the same end.  As if to justify its triviality, flyers for the region read, “Welcome to the real New Zealand,” in hopes that by commodifying the region as such, tourists may feel they have been offered a glimpse of New Zealand “off the beaten path,” without the glossy finish.  If you want to see larger-than-average Kiwis shopping at the nation’s Walmart equivalents than this inside glimpse at real Kiwi life is for you.  Otherwise, Invercargill is a cold, tired, southern outpost best used as a means for refueling, grabbing groceries, and leaving before the early winter sunset casts it’s eerie spell.

We wanted badly to leave the second we got to Invercargill, cursing the sweet lady in Mossburn who had raved about the place.  The name itself was so unappealing that I couldn’t figure out why we had thought it a good idea to come in the first place.  All the same, we needed to regroup and plan our next move, so we spent the night at the Kackling Kea, a lackluster hostel on a generic, treeless street.  That night, we saw the #1 movie in the nation, Boy by Taika Waititi, about a young Maori growing up in the sunny town of Waihau Bay on the eastern coast of the North Island as we dreamed about being anywhere but Inver(fucken’)cargill.

The initial plan for the following day was to get the hell out of Invercargill, but the town confounded us with its curiosities and we would not leave until after three o’clock.  Invercargill’s Southland Museum and Art Gallery is housed in, “the Largest Pyramid in the Southern Hemisphere,” an appropriately tacky and audacious site sitting behind a bronze Greek goddess on the edge of Queen’s Park.  The exhibitions by Judi Jenkins and David Shennan were impressive, but the extensive display of lace artwork and the local sports hall-of-fame left me happy for the free entry.

Deeper into Queen’s Park, we stumbled across a llama and behind a crisscross of fences a menagerie of odd mammals emerged, pleading to be taken out of Invercargill.  A nearby aviary housed exotic birds from New Zealand and Australia and after chatting with a nervous Australian Parrot, we headed to a Japanese Garden to eat our sandwiches.  The odd park also contained an 18-hole golf course and a large plastic castle, notorious for trapping local kids in its tight corners.

As we pulled out of Invercargill, this substitute vacation through, “the real New Zealand” had me laughing in a sinister, head-shaking depression.  Whitewashed suburbia and caged animals paled in comparison with the wonders that awaited us in the mystical Fiordlands.  Yet, things were bound to look up as we left Invercargill heading east to the Catlins, the true gem of the Scenic Southern Route…

… To Be Continued

But, for now, a happy preview for what came next in the Catlins: