To the ends of the earth
A Catlins diversion: falls, fauna, fossils and foreigners
by Thor Iverson
Signs, signs, everywhere a sign
It would be a peaceful, remote beach lapped by cold southern waters, its beauty preserved by its very remoteness. It would, but it’s not, because the town and its beach are littered with agitation. “No reserve!” is the slogan repeated on signs, placards, graffiti on dozens of walls and houses…we’ve waded into some sort of simmering anger, but we’re completely oblivious as to the cause. Yet here in Port Molyneux, they’re certainly exercised about something.
We’d arisen early enough, but last-minute packing, cleaning, and more lengthy reminiscence and chit-chat from host Bill led us to depart from the Otago Peninsula little later than we’d intended. Today’s voyage is one of the chanciest of the entire vacation, because its success or failure depends largely on the quality of Southland’s highly unpredictable weather. Plus, time is also a looming concern. If it rains, it’s a quick but disappointing trip to our next bed. If it doesn’t, we’ve got to pick and choose from among far too many enticing options, lest we miss dinner at the other end. But a passage of the ultra-remote Catlins, unquestionably one of those paths less-trodden (which, for an already remote area, is saying something) by tourists, is something we must at least attempt.
Much is made, by Kiwis, of the potential dangers of the road. Twisty and often unpopulated by cars, it is unsealed for a few dozen kilometers (though the government is in the process of rectifying this), but I grew up on gravel roads and am not much intimidated by rocks under my wheels. And, truth be told, one can easily proceed through the Catlins without ever really experiencing true remoteness and anything wilder than the road; towns, at least on the eastern half of the drive, are pretty common and easily accessed, services are abundant, and there’s no real lack of infrastructure. But traveling the Catlins that way would be a mistake, one we’re determined to avoid. As long as the weather cooperates.
It does, at least for the moment, and all is blue, warm and sunny. The road southwest of Dunedin is as straight and easy as we remember it, and without much delay we’re traversing Balclutha, named for the mighty, South Island-crossing Clutha River that has, by the time it reaches this small city just minutes from the ocean, slowed to a wide and processive flow. It’s here that one chooses to take a quicker inland road through the towns of – I promise, I’m not making this up – Clinton and Gore, or turn southward to follow one of the more invigorating stretches of the aptly-named Southern Scenic Route.
The Catlins experience itself is about options. Detours, side roads, short (or long) hikes, and diversions in all directions; the experience you get is the experience you pursue. So, mere minutes after joining the Southern Scenic Route, we leave it for an ocean-fronting detour, back along the Clutha delta and then on to the ostensibly peaceful communities of Port Molyneux and Kaka Point. The “reserve” of signpost and spray paint, we find out much later, is an attempt by the Department of Conservation to extend protected status to more of this area, and the residents are against it for the usual variety of reasons. What they’re not, at least on this otherwise peaceful morning, is outside; we’re pretty much the only activity in evidence. Maybe everyone’s inside painting signs.
The beach curves, extends, then curves some more, while the road along its edge rises with ever-ascending cliffs, until it ends at a dusty car park. Here, a shaded trail leads along a cliff wall, and then across a convex and zigzagging land bridge, to Nugget Point, an historic lighthouse overlooking a trailing series of rocky outcroppings on which many extended families of sea lions frolic. The youngsters are as active as their parents are slothful, and we enjoy watching them for a while before returning to the car and our road.
We pick up some maps and advice (including tidal tables, which bear heavily on some of our afternoon options) at Owaka’s tourist center, and a few dozen miles down the road take another, deeply forested hike to Purakaunui Falls, a light, multi-tiered flow at the end of a dark and almost secretive walk. From there, we follow back roads to Papatowai Beach, and stop at a sheltered picnic spot surrounded by white cliffs and tree-lined windbreaks from a decidedly unsheltered beach. It’s sunny when we arrive, but there’s a front on the horizon, and between its growing breezes and the oncoming tide, the ocean’s roar soon begins to dominate all else, and by the time we leave the sky has been filled with clouds.
Our picnic area is shared by two buses of older residents from some local care facility, and it’s nice to watch them relax and enjoy their lunch, sipping sun-sparkled glasses of sauvignon blanc and, occasionally, flirting with the occupant of the next folding chair. It’s possible I’d enjoy their wine a bit more than mine.
Passage Rock 2004 Viognier (Waiheke Island) – Simple floral and apricot notes on the nose, with decent (if light) stone fruit, yet highly restrained and, to be honest, a little insipid. Unfortunately, this validates my earlier impression of the wine.
We walk along the windy and desolate beach, changing our route as the tide obliterates our path, and eventually hurrying back to dryer land when it becomes clear that dalliance is going to trap us behind a quickly-filling lagoon. Much farther down the road, and after a tire-spinning joyride on the route’s unsealed section, we arrive at another shady bush walk, this one to stunning McLean Falls, which reveals even more of its beauty because one can climb up and down on its rocky shelves until one is in the midst of the mist. Porpoise Bay, which follows, is a bit of a disappointment, as we only see one distant instance of its namesake, a cavorting Hector’s Dolphin. It’s here, however, that we start to realize that, at uncrowded site after uncrowded site, we’re seeing the same few fellow tourists. They appear to have the same amusing thought, and we share knowing nods. Nearby Curio Bay, on the other hand, is marvelous; an entire alcove of fossilized Jurassic trees being slowly exposed by the relentless erosion of the tides. It’s a history that one can touch, and I’m mesmerized by the experience (Theresa is oddly bored). But it also provides a gateway to the most remote of our destinations.
The sheep at the end of the world
Past farmland, plain, and fence, the rough and windshield-staining dirt road careens. This is followed by more farmland, and then more farmland, and then…did I mention the farmland? We’re on a seemingly endless, and endlessly tedious, road – one that just didn’t look all that long on the map – that, once it passes a tiny (and closed) backpackers’ shop dismayingly named Nadir Outpost, reveals nothing other than grass, wind-pummeled clusters of trees, and sheep that look like they’ve been at the business end of a blow dryer. But, just as we’re ready to abandon the quest and turn around, we finally reach our long-awaited terminus…and then find that we’ve another twenty minutes or so of walking ahead of us. Well, no point in stopping now.
Along a lightly-traveled path, and past bored but curious sheep – is there anywhere in New Zealand that is not littered with sheep? – we trudge, just behind a chatty and friendly group of Danes who, of course, speak flawless English. Eventually, we come to the end…and this time, it’s really the end. A geographical marker, a small weather station, and a sign mark the spot: Slope Point, the southernmost point of the South Island. Appropriately, the weather has turned a little nasty; the rain is, as yet, only spitting, but the winds are strong and the sky is growing darker by the minute. Waves crash against forlornly rocky cliffs, and the cloud-subdued horizon seems to define the very borders of existence. For all the drudgery in getting here, it’s oddly satisfying and even a little exhilarating to be as far south as we’ve ever been, and the only thing that keeps us from being positively giddy is the thought that, tomorrow, we’ll be even farther south.
The road to nowhere
Unfortunately, the Catlins are now behind us, and even our return to the main road reveals nothing else of scenic interest; it’s a straight, flat highway with featureless plains on one side and wide expanses of wetland on the other. The rain now arrives in sheets, and the clouds loom ever lower. We turn on our car’s heater, but the end of the day’s travels has left us with an almost skeletal chill that we just can’t seem to shake.
At long last, civilization reappears, as we make a left in the suburban outskirts of Invercargill and drive south on the road – the only road – that takes us to our day’s final destination. Perched on the slopes of a rocky outcropping, an odd and (at least in this particularly dismal weather) depressing contrast of swanky-looking cliffside homes and long-abandoned, weather-beaten businesses, is Bluff, a town that exists primarily to support three industries: a massive aluminum smelter (the lights of which cut like lasers through the soupy mist), fishing, and the delivery of tourists to points south. We’re only interested in option number three, and so our time here is limited. Everywhere else on this six-week voyage, we’ll stay in vacation rentals equipped with kitchens; tonight, it’s a bed-and-breakfast at land’s end. And that is, in fact, what it’s called.
Land’s End is, with the exception of a shuttered nearby restaurant, the southernmost thing in this most southern of towns. The address gives it away: “end of State Highway 1.” Right in front of the B&B is a sign pointing to a myriad of far-flung destinations – from here, just about everything is far-flung – and from just about any window one can see the regular flow of visitors queuing to take a picture of this sign.
The B&B also hosts a restaurant, which is closed to the public for the night, but open to guests. It’s ultra-casual, but we’re not in the mood for anything else at the moment, and the food is as comforting as one could ever want after a chilly, rain-soaked afternoon. Soon enough, our chill disappears, replaced by the warm glow of food, drink, and hearth. We start our meal by sharing a tremendously oversized bowl of green-lipped mussels in the usual lemongrass-infused broth – the size of these mussels, each shell bigger than my hand, is difficult to comprehend, and the bowl features about forty of them – and follow it with a rich, Manuka honey-sweetened, slow-cooked venison stew. There’s even a short wine list.
Upon our arrival, two couples already inhabit the dining room. At neither table are the couples speaking to each other; the women gaze out the window while the men sip tall glasses of beer and gnaw at their food. It’s a sad sight, made even more melancholy by the darkening, rain-clouded view. We shrug, continue with our conversation at a lower, almost whispered volume…and then are joined at a nearby table by a couple who, before they even say a word, we know to be American. Sometimes, one can just tell. Sure enough, the man – who repeats everything twice – soon fills the room with his din. His wife says little (when would she have the chance?), and despite our best efforts he eventually overhears our accents and starts up a lengthy and mostly one-way conversation – one might easily term it a monologue – full of braggadocio and chest-thumping nationalistic hubris, from which – despite our best efforts – we cannot extricate ourselves until we physically leave our table. On our way upstairs, we pass the kitchen/front desk (this is, after all, a small establishment), whereupon the owner/head chef dryly comments, “bet you enjoyed that,” a sly smirk on his face. I just shake my head, forced to grin despite myself. Because I know that, no matter what, we’ll see our new “friends” again the next morning.
The interior of our room is cozy, with quaint but nicely-modernized features and an ocean view on two sides. It is, frankly, a good deal nicer than we’d predicted, and we expect to have a restful night.
That expectation, however, is grossly mistaken.
Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.