Day 49 The Catlins and Dunedin
The good news is that the Foveaux Strait is safe to cross again this morning ("Better Strait than never" elicits no response from Ruth). The bad news is that it is still spectacularly choppy. Another gut-churning hour being thrown around by the sea later and we're unsteadily back on the South Island by 9am. It's a good job we didn't have breakfast.
Our day is going to involve a lot of driving. We had initially planned to spend yesterday leisurely traversing the Catlins: a sparsely populated and very scenic region around the south east coast. We were going to camp overnight, and then continue on to Dunedin where we have an apartment booked tonight. Because of Straitgate (also doesn't catch on) we have the whole journey to do today, which is about 160 miles and a lot of it will be on unsealed roads.
New Zealand doesn't have motorways as such, so the 100kmh speed limit, when attainable, is strictly enforced along the lazily winding roads, and you're largely at the mercy of whoever's in front of you. So there's no going anywhere quickly. On the plus side, no more camping (yesssssss).
So we set off, heading east around the coast. The landscape is more trees with right-angles and gulls getting blown asunder.
We've got quite the itinerary, which is going to mean a frustratingly small amount of time at each stop, but it should be a day of sights. We're currently aiming for Slope Point, the aforementioned most southerly point. For no other reason than to take the obligatory photo next to the sign confirming that it's there. When we get there, (after bumping up 12km of gravel) it's actually a very attractive, if desolate, stretch of coast.
The sun is out, but as evidenced on the crossing earlier, that doesn't mean the seas are calm. The Pacific is battering into beleaguered cliffs below with a thunderous din, and the wind is whipping across where we're stood. There's a young family walking towards us across the fields, but otherwise we're totally on our own. It ain't like Land's End here. More so because there isn't some mercenary charging £10 you to have your photo by the sign. We really get our money's worth with this one, like a ghastly pair of tourist paparazzi. If you're interested, we're also, nearly equidistant between the South Pole and Equator. The sign tells us this.
However, it's late morning, we've still got 120 miles to go and can't hang about. We continue east on roads of variable quality. It sure is pretty but pretty slow going. Our next stop is Curio Bay, a recommendation from our hosts in Stewart Island. It was the scene, some 180 million years ago, of a prehistoric forest which was drowned under a lava flow from a (now extinct) volcano. The relentless pounding of the maniac sea here has only recently exposed the remains of this forest and revealed it to be petrified.
At low tide you can walk through the stumps, and it is at low tide that we turn up. The reality, however is slightly dispiriting. Turns out that even though these tree stumps have spent an eternity being made magical by geology, it takes only a few decades of tourists going there to make most of them disappear.
So while many of New Zealand's recent visitors can count a purloined 100 million year old bit of petrified wood as a souvenir, these two are in the middle of rather an anticlimactic bay. Not to demand too much from a 100 million year-old forest, but the stumps are all at shoe level. and actually quite difficult to distinguish from your bog-standard 100 million year-old rock. There are supposed to be yellow-eared penguins, hunter dolphins and whales frolicking in the bay as well, but obviously none of them are a-frolicking for us. This one's not so difficult to leave.
We continue around the coast. Cathedral Caves are our next stop, a series of cavernous tunnels on the shoreline, again, only accessible at low tide. We arrive at the gates just as the site opens (it's apparently necessary to barricade access at high tide for the usual obvious tourists-being-foolhardy reasons. We park up, pay $5 (we're on private property apparently) and head down a pleasant tropical cliff-trail which takes about 20 minutes. When we get to the beach, it is expansive.
The sand stretches out for leagues and the sea is crashing down far out in the distance. There's a 500 odd metre walk to the cliffs where the caves are. There are also a fair few people who've walked down with us, so it looks like we won't be alone, but fortunately, the dregs of the low-tide are still piddling into the cave at knee-height, and noone's quite keen enough to take shoes off. But on our tight schedule Ruth and I, like Cnut, say "pffff" to the tide (historically, I may be paraphrasing) and wade in.
It's quite marvellous inside. The caves are vast (among the "top thirty" longest in the world according to our guide book blurb) and are so high that we can't see the ceiling for blackness. It's decidedly eerie walking through a barely lit cavern, wading through a receding tide, the dwindling natural light dancing off the wet walls.
That is until the other tourists start to come through as well, and the sounds that accompany a failed selfie ("what did I just step in?!") begin to drift through the tunnels. We walk through and out the other entrance, to look at the sea and a (currently) deserted beach. It's quite lovely, and a bit of a wrench to leave. We haven't really seen a beach in the sun for 6 weeks (Ushuaia was snowy, Valparaiso was industrial, and Stewart Island was wet) and this one is particularly inviting with its golden sands and summery emptiness, but we've still got a stop to go and an AirBnB deadline to make, so we mosey back.
Another hour up the road, and still at least two from Dunedin is Nugget Point, scene for the cover-shot of every South Island guide book. An exposed headland with a lighthouse at the end and a series of islets poking through the clamouring Pacific, stretching off to sea, it is an arresting scene. There's a short coastal drive up to the car park from Kaka Point (the nearest village), past a cobalt-blue shore and more arthritic trees from the wind whistling down.
It's a pleasant 20 minute stroll in the sun from the car park to the lighthouse along a precarious cliff-walk, which has a sheer drop of some distance one side. Finally though, we do see some penguins on the rocks below. Nugget Point Lighthouse is quite a scene when we get there too. The late afternoon sun is beating down. The Pacific is throwing its weight around the rocky 'Nuggets' in the distance, and sea-lions and penguins are basking in the spray below. As with Cathedral Caves, we could stay here a lot longer, but cannot linger, so head back to the car and onward to Dunedin.
Dunedin is the South Island's second biggest city, a university town with a far-from-home Scottish influence (the name comes from the Gaelic translation for Edinburgh). As a result of our enforced stay on Stewart Island we won't have too long here - we have to be back in Christchurch in three nights, which means we won't get to explore a lot of Dunedin's rich heritage.
Some of the oldest known Maori settlements came from this region, and since then it has had a rash of exciting Gold Rush explosions, as well as the now-standard European feuding to lay claim to it. The harbour is a deep water port of some international repute, and much of the land around it has been reclaimed for waterside developments.
However, it's about 5pm by the time we've rocked up to our parking space so we will be investigating none of this, concentrating instead on getting something to eat. Antonia our host, meets us for a quick introduction to the apartment and the town. Our apartment tonight is a cracker: an old wharf conversion half a mile from the Octagon, the civic centre which is rife with bars and restaurants where we can fill our boots (and faces).
After, dumping the bags we head straight out, and walk past the handsome railway building, with old locomotives in there which awaken the excitable child in me and impatience in Ruth. After being pulled away from the window, we make it to the Octagon (past an improbable Cadbury's World building), and complete a circuit of its lively-looking bars and restaurants before settling on Madame Woos. This is a Vietnamese restaurant which rejuvenates us with great beer, and even better food. It's also the spiciest thing we've eaten in well over a month, so we spend much of the meal panting and sweating.
Afterwards, we walk the high street, as darkness begins to fall on the second longest day of the year. We stop into an attractive-looking pub along the way, and sit up at the bar opposite a wall filled with gin bottles. The next two hours are an emotional journey. The barman who serves us is an authority on his drinks, and what was supposed to be a quick nightcap for us turns into a charted history of gin's origins followed by a protracted analysis of his recent break-up with a long term girlfriend. For every drink he pours a customer, he matches one for himself. He is, by some degree, the drunkest in the bar. We have brief periods of respite while he goes off to serve someone else (it becomes clear why noone else is sitting at the bar) before he sidles back to continue a tortuous journey of self exploration. "We were so good together, what do you think the problem was?" as he mainlines another double measure of neat gin. We are shown photos of her (Do you respond with a "she looks lovely," a "can't believe she left you" or a "was it all the gin-drinking"? We opt for a conciliatory "mmmmm"). After two G+Ts of interminable duration, and lots of assurances that Ruth and I will always communicate our problems to each other, we slip out into the night. Poor bastard.
Day 50 Oamaru
We have more driving to do today, another 80 miles up the coast to Oamaru. We lay the foundations for it with breakfasts of titanic portions near the Octagon. We say goodbye and wish Happy Christmas to Antonia and her family and get back into our besmirched car. Before we head north, we drive to Otago point, the end of the peninsula to the east of here.
It's a scenic if sedentary drive around a twisty coast road to the end of the headland. We'd hoped to see more wildlife, but aside from a few seals lazing around in a secluded bay, they're all out for the day.
We also make an unscheduled stop at Larnach castle, a bizarrely familiar-looking Scottish castle built at the end of the 19th Century, perched on a hillside. We mooch around the gardens in late morning sunshine, and enjoy the views of Otago harbour.
We proceed north, hugging the coast road. We drive past a number of small towns on highway 1, the South Island's main trunk road from Christchurch to Invercargill.
Along the way we pass the "obviously-gotta-stop-for-a-photo" Shag Point, before stopping at the Moeraki Boulders for a walk along the beach. The boulders have been revealed from the surrounding cliffs by sea-erosion and now sit oddly on the beach, some whole, some split open looking like an offshore catapult hurled them there. It's another gloriously eye-catching scene and we happily trapise around them for nearly an hour with a handful of other visitors, before the tide starts to come back in.
We make it to Oamaru (in Maori, 'place of Maru' an individual of some historical conjecture), which these days survives as a city celebrating New Zealand's (early European) heritage. It's an unlikely centre too for the revival of Steampunk, a movement imagining a world where steam-power still rules. It also is a sea-life epicentre being home to colonies of penguins, sea-lions and more. It is to one of these we head after settling in to our AirBnB for the next two nights. Another fine host, Steve, lets us in a flat with a spectacular view of the Pacific and a complimentary bottle of homemade apple wine (better than we were expecting). He then gives us tips on the best spots to see the penguins walk up the beach.
So we head off to Bushy Beach, to have a look for some yellow-eyed penguins (among the rarest apparently) as the sun sets. It's a pleasant spot, but the penguins aren't very forthcoming. We're there for an hour and a half and see one toddle up the beach and into the undergrowth where, presumably, the kids are whining.
We stay until the sun is almost down, and then drive the 5km back to town to have a stroll along the shorelines there. We see a few more Blue Penguins, wrestling with the waves to come in. They're an adorable bunch, and we stay for another hour or two, failing to notice that town is quietly shutting up shop behind us.
When we have exhausted our fill of penguins for the day, we go to try and get some food, (it's about 10pm) but everywhere is closed. There aren't even any bars open. With resignation, we drive back to the McDonalds on the main drag in. We passed it earlier, and it IS open. We buy a shameful Big Mac meal each and eat it quietly back at the flat, before settling down to a late night of British 1990s TV, our day of fusing national cultures over.