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Bovine beach blues

Our goal: to not resemble fattened calves

by Thor Iverson

The road not taken

Commitments are a strange thing. “Next time we’re in New Zealand, we’re going to do some hikes,” we’d agreed in the rosy afterglow of our 2002 trip, and at the time we’d fervently meant it. New Zealand’s incomparable natural beauty is, despite a general lack of roads, surprisingly accessible…but then there’s much more that’s not, unless one is willing to get out of the car, train, boat or tour bus and walk a bit. It was, at the time, a firm commitment to an ideal.

Of course, the strange thing about commitments and ideals is how they crumble in the face of reality. Neither of us much likes camping (Theresa’s just not into the hassles, while any affection I once had was thoroughly destroyed by the Boy Scouts, especially our northern Minnesota winter excursions – 30ºF below zero, all day and night – and their mosquito-ridden summer equivalents), Theresa has a downhill ski racing-damaged ankle and two similarly-damaged knees that ache to the point of immobility on extended downslopes, and, to be honest, neither of us have entered this vacation in the best of shape. An exploratory early-evening stroll around our villa on Waiheke Island drove this point home with accompanying dismay, when after a mere fifteen minutes of low-impact and low-speed walking we were sweaty, tired, and eager to sit down for dinner.

Nonetheless, surrounded by the natural majesty of the Otago Peninsula, we’re determined to overcome our self-induced obstacles. Not being fools, we’ve chosen to start our walking adventures on a flat track and in the cool of the early morning. Bill, our host at the Fern Grove Garden, delivers our breakfast – enough for three starving lumberjacks: fresh fruit, organic eggs, milk, bread, butter, and a rather frightening quantity of muesli – and serves of a side of some experienced advice on which tracks might suit our needs.

[basalt pyramid]

An early, abandoned “fortress of solitude”

Ferns of endearment
[net on Okia Beach]

Net worthless
[picnic at Fern Grove Garden]

A post-hike snack

Basalt, salt, and the roar of the lion

A short while later, we’re in a dusty car park (really just a flat circle of gravel) with a field full of placidly munching cows gazing lazily over a long wooden fence at these interesting new intruders. We can hear the gentle scrape of the ocean beyond the horizonless pasture, but much walking lies between us and it. To our left, gentle hills turn steeper, full of grassy and fern-covered tumult. We open a gate next to a sign that announces the beginning of our journey – the Okia Track – and start down a rutted tractor path.

Ten minutes later, we’re back at the gate. It turns out that we’re on the wrong side of a fence. The commitment is strong, perhaps, but the skill may be lacking.

The walk itself is physically easy, though in patches the growth of path-side plants has exceeded hikers’ (and the Department of Conservation’s) ability to clear much of a walkway, and our movement is regular and fairly quick. At the end of our formerly impassable fence, there’s another series of gates and a box full of helpful, laminated handouts detailing the remainder of the path, some optional additions thereto, and the flora and fauna we might encounter along the way. Green posts with bright yellow tips mark the way, and it’s completely impossible to get lost. It’s all part of a national tourist infrastructure that is simply without peer, and one that will continually amaze us as we continue our long voyage through New Zealand. Eventually, we encounter turns, twists, and a gentle up-and-down path that scales and circumscribes brush-covered sand dunes, until we emerge into a clearing into which the sea is roaring a much louder chorus of rolling thunder. To our left are white cliffs (“like Dover,” comments my wife) separated by unending waterfalls of lush green ferns, and to our right is an almost magical outcropping of fully-crystallized basalt in the shape of a lopsided pyramid. A few minutes later, the path turns to sand, the underbrush gives way to flowering bushes and thin grass, and we’re a mere handful of steps from the water.

[footprints on Okia Beach]

Two-track mind
Neither of us can remember ever being utterly alone on a beach. And yet, here we are, the only sign of human intrusion from end to end of the epic horizontal bar of sand known as Okia Beach. The bright, sunlit ocean rolls slowly in with the tide, smoothing and dampening the light beige sand to a sheer dull grey. Theresa decides to take a break, while I continue along the beach in search of wildlife. My boots make the only tracks in sight, save for the gentle scratches of a few scurrying oystercatchers networking on the dunes. I pass the torn remnants of a long-abandoned fishing net, various skeletal formations of driftwood, the rotted remains of a forgotten ship’s hull, and a few sun-charred crabs, but otherwise the beach remains completely devoid of any sign of civilization, human or otherwise. It’s a humbling experience.

At the northern end of the beach, the sand comes to an end in a pile of massive rocks and a forbidding cliff wall. I’ve spied a sea lion sunning on one of the more distant outcroppings, and I carefully ascend the nearby rockfall for a closer look. Without warning, a furious roar comes from deep within a black cavern over which I’m stepping. All thoughts of safety or good sense flee my mind as I scamper back down the rocks and several dozen feet across the beach, before turning to see the source of the noise. A massive bull sea lion is waving his whiskered head from the space I just occupied, as protective of his territory as he is annoyed at the disruption of his nap.

I decide that, maybe, this isn’t the best time to ask him to pose for a portrait – I’m really not up for being angrily squashed today, thank you very much – and begin the long slog back to Theresa’s position. The soft but constant ocean breeze blows a gauzy film of sand over the beach, almost immediately starting to smooth out the evidence of my passage, and I’m sure that a few hours from now, there will be no sign that I’ve ever been here. Were I to require a reminder of man’s impermanence, this would be it. Finally rejoined with my wife, I tell her about my little adventure, and she responds that she’s been watching ultra-rare Hector’s dolphins cavorting just offshore.

The walk back is quick and easy, passing a sacred Maori cave at the foot of another basalt pyramid and passing closer to the imperturbably masticating cattle, and in the end we’re more invigorated than tired. Maybe there is something to this hiking thing after all.

Eight sides to every story

Back at our cottage, we feast on smoked mussels, cheeses, dips, pâtés, greens, and oils with a chilled bottle of wine that we’d almost lost to our Christchurch luggage misadventure.

Kennedy Point 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Alone, this wine remains a touch more malic than most of its brethren. With food, it shows ripe tropical fruit with the slightest edge of green, texturally somewhat oily but at its core pure, yet simple, fun.

We dawdle over lunch, so much so that we make our way into Dunedin considerably later than we’d anticipated. As it turns out, not only is there a busy street fair just starting to wind down, but many of the most prominent monuments are already closed for the day. It’s just as well, because our pre-dinner time is a bit more limited than we’d planned.

[Dunedin Railway Station]

Theresa takes a station break
Dunedin is, despite its enveloping hillside sprawl, extremely ordered at its core. The heart of the city is an octagonal ring of streets, around which are situated most of its cathedrals, churches, government buildings, and historic houses. Three long streets bisect The Octagon, passing from their park-lined southern end, past the University of Otago and its surrounding student infrastructure (featuring such prominently-advertised nomenclature as “The Pink Pussy” and “Fat-Bottomed Girl,” and incidentally neither is a strip club), and ending in yet another series of parks and gardens. The streets themselves are bordered by the ubiquitous colorful awnings and second floors that seem to be a New Zealand urban signature, and today they’re crowded with vendors, live performers, residents, and a lot of college students visiting their favorite beverage and retail haunts. We visit the elaborately-designed Railway Station that represents the jewel of Dunedin’s unique architectural style, the interior of a cool Presbyterian church, the exterior of more than a few houses and historical buildings that remind us of a stone- and rock-dominated San Francisco, and then spend some more time just wandering the festive streets of the town.

All this walking is making us thirsty, however, and as we’re a little bit early for dinner, we decide to stop at the highly-regarded Bacchus Wine Bar (12 The Octagon) for a drink. The place is empty (apparently, Dunedinites don’t come here for pre-dinner drinks, at least not this early), but expecting a full crowd soon, and so we sit at the bar and chat with a somewhat surly bartender and an adorable, slightly flirty manager about New Zealand wine. They seem impressed at the breadth of our contacts, not knowing the reason for it, but what impresses us is the passion they return for the subject. The wine culture here really is more developed than it is back home in the States, save perhaps in certain areas of West Coast wine country, and the penetration of knowledge is consistently surprising; maybe it shouldn’t be at a place that carries this sort of name, but I can think of hundreds of places back home where the name certainly does not reflect the knowledge.

The wine list, both by bottle and glass, is not huge but is extremely selective, and the menu looks interesting (though of course we don’t get to try anything). The space is clean and sparse, though a bit sound-reflective, and I suspect that the place can be a little noisy at full capacity. Wines – or at least ours – are served in flawless high-end crystal stems and at carefully-managed temperatures. We decide, in the face of all this bounty, to sample a pair of well-known wines that can be compared and contrasted.

Pegasus Bay 2004 Riesling (Waipara) – Minerals, cold earth, and a touch of petrol with lime and grapefruit; crisply acidic and long, with obvious aging potential.

Peregrine 2003 Riesling (Central Otago) – Fruitier, showing limestone, chalk, and very slight tropicality (Key lime is featured). This wine has a big presence, and is lightly sweet, but it lacks a bit of complexity in comparison to the Pegasus Bay, and will probably not age as well.

A secret knock

[Bell Pepper Blues]

Eric Clapton’s rejected song titles
Appetites whetted by our crisp aperitifs, we head a few blocks down the street to our dinner destination. Bell Pepper Blues is an intriguing cross between a formal Old West saloon and a Chicago speakeasy, with rich, dark wood-dominated architecture around an equally dark, elaborately balustraded staircase in one room, and a smoky-feeling bar (they don’t actually allow smoking) of hushed tones in the other, and scattered with well-spaced tables that seem more rustic and rough-hewn than the rest of the interior. Somehow, it all works, and one feels both comforted by the studied informality and anticipatory at the signs that all is not quite so informal as it seems, especially in the kitchen.

A mix of blues, mid-century pop (Sinatra and the like), and jazz give the room a bit more life that it would otherwise have, thanks to its low table density…and we have a chance to listen for a while, as our waitress for the evening is apparently not yet on the premises (this was also a subject of much discussion at Bacchus; apparently, there is some sort of local epidemic of tardiness). We’re apologetically assigned a different waitress, which is presented to us as a much bigger deal than it really should be. But it’s the only flaw, and an exceedingly minor one, for this is a restaurant that does a few well-conceived things very, very well.

I start with an “Asian salad” of sesame-coated prawns and seared beef in a Yorkshire pudding shell studded with spring onions and drizzled with chilies and ginger mayonnaise, somewhat adventurous but deliciously-executed. The course that follows is unquestionably the best cervena – and very close to the best venison – I’ve ever tasted in my life, a grilled leg section and a restaurant-made sausage with a flawless spätzle in beet-infused jus. It’s a simple but perfect blend of excellent ingredients and cooking designed to softly merge a few, clear flavors, and upon tasting this there’s little wonder that the restaurant’s chef has won awards for his creativity with this particular meat.

Cairnbrae Rd. Vineyard “Carrick” 2002 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – I’d tasted at this winery back in 2002, been highly unimpressed, and carried a bottle of their flagship 2001 Pinot Noir north to Marlborough. It was pleasant enough with lunch, but did nothing to change my world. And yet, in the interim, their name kept coming up among writers and critics, with ever-increasing enthusiasm and a place in the upper pantheon of Central Otago producers. Curious, I decided to give this wine another chance.

Boy, am I glad I did. I don’t know if the difference is winemaking, vineyard sourcing, one extra year of vineyard age, or perhaps even a midnight pact with Satan, but this wine is completely unrecognizable in comparison to what I’d tasted from the previous vintage. Tannic at first, it opens up quickly and powerfully, showing rich, slightly roasted red cherry, tomato skin, earthy loam, sand, graphite and drying fall leaves. Excellently balanced, with stunning complexity, grip, and waves of hidden power for the time it remains open. It recedes beneath its tannin after about an hour and a quarter. Still, this is a stunning effort, and I make a mental note to revisit Carrick when we return to the Central Otago in just over a week’s time.

I’m so filled by this meal that I skip dessert, watching Theresa devour hers while I sip some Scotch.

Highland Park Scotch Whisky 12 Year (Orkney Islands) – Heathery breezes and light, fresh wood dusted with nutmeg. There’s good acidity and a deft touch, but it finishes watery. A pretty dull dram.

I can’t, however, resist the lure of yet another marvelous flat white, which fortifies me for the perilous drive back along Highcliff Road. Yes, yes, it’s unbelievably foolish after yesterday’s trauma, but I’ve promised Theresa the views, and they’re spectacular up to the point that I hit the nail-biting descent, after which descending darkness takes much of yesterday’s fear away. The only breaks in the blackness are the twinkling lights of far-away Dunedin and the brilliant beacons on the Antarctic horizon, and we almost run over a waddling, mole-like creature on our descent to Portobello Road and, soon thereafter, our cottage.

Safely home and satiated in mind, body and stomach, we turn off the lights. Our silence is disturbed by a short eruption of fireworks over Dunedin, and we watch through the enveloping ferns as lights explode in multicolored glory. Who knew that they’d make such a big deal about us finishing a hike?

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.