New Zealand: The Catlins

I enjoy the deep delicious sleep that comes with returning home after several nights away. This 5 meter long metal box is home. Strangely I feel more comfortable here than I ever did in the rental flat. Maybe it’s because it’s mine. All small of it. I have nowhere to go, nothing to do, no plans for several weeks. I need to fill up water. The plan. The get me through the next moment. I fill up the water. I start following the local Heritage Trail and stop at Niagara Falls, which is New Zealand’s idea of a joke. For once it’s a good one. Some of the smallest waterfalls I’ve ever seen bubble over a few rocks. What’s the criteria for a waterfall? I don’t know but I’m sure I’ve seen bigger, unnamed falls coming down the side of tracks during and after heavy rain. I laugh hardest at the sign with a photo of the other, proper, real Niagara Falls. A concrete horse trough is on the same heritage trail which tells you something about how desperate New Zealand is for human history. Not a joke. Not far away are some 300 year old trees but there’s no sign for them.

I stop in the next town for a short walk in the woods where I learn I don’t know the difference between a miru and a totara tree which is probably ok as I’ve never seen them in the same room. I move on to Curio Bay. Ticking off the stops on the travel and tourism to do list. I stroll through the regenerating forest. Rimu groves are dark like pine but native shrubs poke through the brown needles. Life begets life. Then I drop onto the foreshore to look at the petrified wood of an actual Jurassic forest. Trees, or the remnants of, as old as the mountains, and hard as stone. The signs around indicate the world’s rarest penguin, the Yellow Eyed penguin, lives here. I’m unlikely to see one in the middle of the day and I’m reluctant to hang around until dusk which might be 11pm at the point. The fish oil aroma suggests there might be a few penguins living here. I move on again to Slope Point, through a field of sheep shit and pissing rain to the most Southerly point on the South Island. Redundant really as I’ve already been further South.

Back in the van the rain falls heavy and I have a decision to make. Call it a day or make one more stop? I’m already wet so it won’t matter. The van at least is warm, holding heat like a well insulated house during the day. Waipapa Point lighthouse is the final stop on the first day of my whirldwhind tour of the Catlins Coast. I sit in the van for a bit, knowing the pitter patter on the roof is louder than the actual fall of rain. I get out, walk to the lighthouse and back. I long for a clear night. A moonless sky. Another look into the depth of space, beneath the flash of the light warning of the rocks below. Grey and white streaks of cloud blot out the sky. I go back to whatever the field by the sea I slept in last night is called. I sit, I eat, near constantly, questioning whether I’m actually hungry or dehydrated. Probably both. The van is full of snacks and the water tanks are full. Both problems are easily solved. 

I almost get up and go in the morning but I also think what’s the point? There are only a few things between here and where I’m planning on spending the next night so there is no rush. First then McClean Falls. I’ve learned now the one stick figure walking without a backpack means a walking track, which means jandals, flip flops, thongs (delete as appropriate) are appropriate unless it’s muddy, or wet. The falls are fine, they’re not the worst roadside attraction I’ve seen. Another tick on the list. I go on again off again along the Southern Scenic Route. One gravel road detour after another. Next, a beach. One which has a land access fee to pay and I’ve come too far to turn around so I pay the $10 to go down to the Cathedral Caves. It seems like a long time since I was last barefoot walking on the beach, in the surf. I arrived as the tide was far enough out to walk straight into the caves, which is fortunate really as I hadn’t bothered to check. The small weekend crowd leaves as I explore the two tunnels and I have them, albeit briefly, to myself. I walk back to the car park via the waves. Letting the water wash up behind my knees. Sinking into the cold sand. I will of course regret this later when I make it back to the van, pasted in sand. I stop at a lookout, a little further on are Matai and Horseshoe falls and I start to wonder if they need to build a track to every cascade. Does everything need to be seen? Maybe we could put a tap in the car park and if people are curious about the effects of gravity on water they could turn it on. Or maybe there hasn’t been enough rain for them to really shine. I drive to another, Purakaunui. This one has the decency to at least be good. One more then? Or straight on to Nugget Point? One more won’t hurt.

Barr falls again seems dry. Waste of a drive. I head off. I try to head off. I was parked on the side of the gravel road. No big deal, I’ve done a few three point turns on gravel roads before. I get to point one and move up to reverse and the wheels just spin. I dig a couple of trenches and decide this is no good. I get out and have a look. Not that I know what I’m looking at. Maybe I can squeeze all the way round in one. I roll a touch forward, on to the soft vegetation and towards the ravine. Abort. Abort! Maybe I can reverse now? I dig another trench. Shit. I never should have doubted that decision of having seen enough. “One more won’t hurt,” he said. I check my phone. No signal. Nobody came up or down the road. The people I’ve been half following aren’t here so they probably did the sensible thing and skipped it. Oh shit. What to do? Find help I guess. Up or down? I don’t remember passing a house so maybe the next one is up. I start walking. 15 minutes later I find a drive way. A car by the house. A good sign. To people digging in the garden. The first wave of relief. “Hi there, so sorry to bother you but I’ve got my van stuck and was wondering if you might be able to help?” I think they laugh but I’m not sure if it’s because I led with an apology or because I’m an idiot. The man goes to get his truck. The woman tells me I’m not the first to knock, normally they go downhill first. Not that they’re in. So I made the right decision. I also feel slightly less embarrassed as I’m told several tales of tourists getting caught on the hill. I get in the man’s truck, he grabs a chain and we go back to the van. He hooks on the chain and drags me back on to the road, shakes my hand and goes back to continue digging his holes. I get out of there, relieved by the lack of panic and the swiftness of action. On the road again, without too long a delay, and without having to make another AA call out.

I stick to the plan and head to Nugget Point. Down on the rocks the New Zealand Fur Seals scream like children with grazed knees. The lighthouse is less impressive than the nuggets of rock that scatter out in to the sea beyond. Grey clouds sit heavy in the sky. Again, I think time and place. The place is right but the time is not. Neither is the weather, but when is it? A sunset would have been decent but that’s not until much later and probably won’t amount to much so I give up. I stop in s carpark outside Dunedin. A ratty dog comes and says hello, excited to see anyone come in to stop. A few clouds flash pink, maybe I think. Maybe maybe maybe and then it’s gone. Over, like my whirldwind tour of the Catlins. Seeing as much as I could before the rain arrived to ruin it all. Actually, those waterfalls might have been more impressive after a few days of rain. I’ll never know.

In the morning it’s raining. It will rain all day. I drive to the shops and pick up a 6 pack of a not bad but not great either hazy pale ale because you can’t really turn up to someone’s house empty handed. I then have a look at some overpriced sandals and think, in a few days, after Christmas, they will be reasonably priced. Wait. I then walk around the Dunedin Botanical Gardens in the rain. I say hello to the parrots and then give up pretending this is a good idea. Old mates Rob and Dave off of the Paparoa track said to stop by when I passed through so I’m stopping by. Nobody’s home when I arrive but Rob sent me instructions on how to let myself in. Dave comes and says hello between errands. Rob comes home and suggests we meet Dave out somewhere for dinner. Being close to Christmas, being a Tuesday, a lot of the local spots are closed or are closing up. The Indian is open so we stop there. Over dinner I catch them up on my latest adventures and they suggest I can stop for as long as I need. I don’t know about stopping, I’ve gotten used to the constant movement. There’s so much to see still. I know I can’t see it all but I can still do so much more. Everything changes in the morning. I slept so well I don’t wake up when it’s light. I don’t wake up until I hear the kettle. Someone else is up. I don’t have to put shoes on to go to the toilet. I don’t have to go outside to the toilet in the rain. This is nice. Rob has already left for work and Dave’s on his way out to organise bits and pieces before they head off to Queenstown to be with their children for Christmas. I float around the house, hide from the rain and attempt to drown myself in tea. There’s a fridge here, and an oven, and the tap dispenses hot water on demand. This is nice. I can see why most people live indoors. In the evening we play a few games. “Would it really be alright if I stayed over Christmas?” “It’d be our pleasure, as long as you need. It’d be good to have someone look after the house but don’t feel you need to wait til we get back.” So that’s settled then. I’m staying put for Christmas.

I head to the supermarket on Christmas Eve which is the worst I’ve seen since before the pandemic. Crowds, trolleys everywhere, nobody seeming to know if they’ve got enough toilet paper. For the rest of the day I try to impersonate a cat. I lounge in the sun. I pace around the house. I lounge in the sun some more. I eat my bodyweight in espresso dusted chocolate almonds. I lounge in the sun. I read almost half a book. I drink so much tea I spend at least as much time peeing as I did drinking. And then it’s Christmas Eve but it’s still light and I missed all the build up and actually that’s kind of nice. I speak to my parents on Christmas morning from the comfort of an armchair. They go to bed and I decide to go for a walk before I try to kill myself with cheese. Concrete chimneys burst from corrugated steel roofs. Cast iron curls down over weathered decking.  I think I like Dunedin. A few people are loading gifts into the back of cars. I move through the North East Valley to the bottom of Signal Hill. Most of the tracks are for mountain bikes. I find the pedestrian access and climb up. The view from the top is good but also shows me the incoming weather. Black cloud and grey rain. I’ll race it, I might even win. I have to take my glasses off before I get back because they’re useless. I can’t see beyond the droplets. I’m soaked but I have some where to hang my wet clothes and can have a hot shower and forget almost immediately about the minor unpleasant feeling. In the evening I lose a supposedly Christmas themed quiz with two music rounds and a Harry Potter round against some members of the family where I’m told I look tired. Yes, well it is close to midnight now.

Christmas Cheeseboard

Rob and Dave come home on Boxing Day and I’m glad to spend more time with them. I get to cook which makes me feel like I’ve given something back, and also get cooked for. Adding another layer of comfort to the luxuries I’ve enjoyed so far. I spend another day lounging in the sun reading. This becomes a problem. The comforts of home, of someone else’s home. Electric lights that keep the dark away, that keep up the pretence day hasn’t ended. I stay up late and get up even later. Hot water on demand. Even cold water on demand. I am at least clean. The solid walls, the fixed roof, keeping the weather at bay. I have left the house twice in five days. A fridge to keep your beer cool. I am enjoying myself. I could get used to this, so I need to go before I get too used to this. I remember again, so long ago now, leaving Jason and Andrea’s and how much harder that was than leaving everything I know behind and flying to another country to live for a bit. I say my goodbyes and hopefully see you agains to Rob and Dave and continue my journey North once more.

One response to “New Zealand: The Catlins

  1. Home comforts over Christmas appreciated. Good for us to see you (even if you did look tired). Covid numbers increasing daily here,so good to hear of your adventures while we are in lockdown again. Weather cold and frosty but daily walk or essential shopping is all we are allowed. Keep safe.xx

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