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Catlins Invercargill

14th January 2012

Of Cathedral Caves and Petrified Forests and the Southern Tip of South Island

Matai Falls
    The night was a shocker, lashings of rain followed by gale force winds; the wagon was really shaken about. There was no communal kitchen here, so I just poured my cereal into a bowl by the boot of the car. Before I had chance to pour milk in on top of it, a sudden gust of wind had scooped my cereal away to the four corners of the earth. When the young woman surfaced in the morning, she said she had been worried by the winds, which was fair comment since her wagon was in a more exposed position. As we said our farewells, the lass said she had enjoyed the time in the bar last night, and then we were just memories.
Lost Gypsy Gallery
    I headed back down the Southern Scenic Route. Sudden gusts of wind were throwing my waggon about quite violently; a high sided campervan must have felt very insecure in these circumstances. I stopped at a pull off for the Matai Falls on the McLennan River. These were reached via an easy trail through 10m-high native fuchsia trees. There used to be a sizeable township (Caberfeidh) here in years gone by, but today little remained but these falls, which resembled a bridal veil.
    On leaving Matai Falls, I drove southwards through rolling countryside to the cute forested village of Papatowai. The place of interest here is the Lost Gypsy Gallery, just by the roadside as I left Papatowai. The main gallery appears to be an old school bus, that a Kiwi by the name of Blair Sommerville has filled to the brim with odds n' sods. By this I mean the ceiling is adorned with old circuit boards, walls had shelves stacked high with tiny mechanical and electrical things that buzzed, whirred and performed all manner of automated acts. A model train even ran around at head height, the track propped up on boxes or gadgets, and at times even suspended from the ceiling.
Wood Pigeon
    Outside in a building that resembled three toilet rolls made out of concrete, all standing vertically, with natural light provided by glass bottles set in the concrete, larger displays were located. Some were quite clever from an educational perspective. One of these concrete rooms was a sort of music room. Taking centre stage was a battered, almost falling apart, organ. The neat thing with this was that the centre octave did play organ music, but the other octaves electrically operated all manner of objects in the room, from bells to whistles, horns to cymbals, old gramophones to tiny transistor radios.
Tautuku Bay from Florence Hill
    I returned back to the bus, where Blair was uncoiling a spring with a pair of pliers for some new fantastic object. "Were you a scientist, an engineer, a teacher, or a bit of everything?" I asked him. "None of those," he laughed, "I just love tinkering, and by tinkering I find what I can and can't do with objects and materials." The displays were both amusing, innovative and thought provoking, and the chap made a living out of it. Good for him.
Cathedral Caves
    Florence Hill lookout just south of Papatowai was an ideal stopping point to take in spectacular views of Tautuku Bay, a magnificent sweep of sandy bay hedged by extensive forest, and Peninsular to the south, and Tahakopa Bay and Long Point to the north. Long Point was the last resting place for the ship Manuka, which struck the Point in 1929.
    I carried on the highway to the turnoff to Cathedral Caves. The land is owned by the Maori, so an admission fee had to be paid. The lady selling the tickets was trying to explain to the old dear in front of me that there is a deep waterhole at the entrance to the cave. "It is possible to wade through it, but it would be chest deep. You'd be better off walking in along the ledges at the side," she instructed the old woman. The old woman responded in a mixture of English and German, and then carried on towards the walkway. I caught up with her on my way down the track through the bush, and explained to her in the German I could muster. Now she understood. Despite her age, she could walk briskly. She was doing a four month tour with her husband, who sadly broke his leg after two months, so she was fitting in what she could whilst attending to her hubby's needs.
Rough Seas Breaking on Waipati Beach
    The track brought us down to the sweeping Waipati Beach with its attendant wildlife, and a stroll along the sands brought us to the caves. Furious seas had spent millennia carving cathedral sized caves with soaring vertical walls; hence the apt name. The caves were only accessible a couple of hours either side of low tide. These stupendous echoing palaces amplified the sound of their creator, the sea, and welcomed the same creator twice daily for another scrub and brush-up, forever growing in stature.
    Barely a kilometre south of the caves was a turnoff down Rewcastle Road to a car park for the McLean Falls. A walk through rimu and tree ferns, in a continuous set of falls pouring from the heavens, brought me to first a small set of falls, then the much larger set of most impressive 20m falls. The heavy rains had turned this into a stunning spectacle, and the roar extended far down the valley.
McLean Falls
Petrified Log in Curio Bay
    I was getting a tad saturated in falls by now, and waist down I was totally saturated, so I hauled myself back into the wagon, turned the heat up to full blast maximum temperature, and made my way through the small fishing village of Waikawa past Porpoise Bay to Curio Bay. Porpoise Bay provided a grand, windswept, sandy environment for swimming, and was also popular with penguins and Hectors Dolphins. Occasionally whales visited the bay, and fur seals and sea lions lounged on the rocks. Down towards the end of the road lay Curio Bay. Here the stumps and fallen trees of the world's finest fossilised Jurassic forest, 160 million years old, lay uniquely preserved, and exposed on a rock platform at low tide at the bay. Unlike animal fossils, petrified wood like this is incredibly rare. It is though that a sudden flood, due to a volcanic eruption, had swept the logs into the area, the flood killing the rest of the forest. The entire logs and stumps were preserved because the silication, due to the ash-filled floodwaters, was within a matter of weeks or months after a flood, before the decay had set in.
    Having marvelled at this ancient forest, I made my way down to a significant milestone, the most southerly point of the South Island, Slope Point, maybe the furthest south I will ever travel in my lifetime, or maybe not. A farmland walk through horizontal, stinging rain, passing almost horizontal trees and grass brushed flat against the contours of the ground, brought me to a stubby beacon and the obligatory signpost, mirroring the most northerly point I visited on the North Island, Cape Reinga. Compared with Cape Reinga, it was a bit of an anti-climax. The northern most point was served by tour busses, and was bathed in subtropical light. Slope Point was only reachable by narrow twisting gravel tracks which tour busses couldn't negotiate, and the weather down here was decidedly colder, wetter and windier. There was no one here to take a snap of me by the sign post. However, dramatic views of the headlands were to be had from this landmark spur of rock, a windswept domain as evidenced by the local trees. I stood and looked around me. Far over the horizon to the west lay Argentina, to the east was Chile, and to the south the cold wastes of Antarctica. This was a truly monumental place, and I shifted from foot to foot for quite a while trying to comprehend the scale. I concluded I would need to be several thousand miles out into space, gazing down from above the South Pole to truly appreciate the scale.
Slope Point - Most Southerly Point on South Island
Waipapa Point Lighthouse
    The last stop on the Catlins section of the Southern Scenic Route was the Waipapa Point Lighthouse, and scene of New Zealand's worst civilian shipping disaster in 1881. 131 souls died when the ship SS Tararua was wrecked on the reef just offshore. The lighthouse was erected three years after the disaster.
    The Catlins had started with a lighthouse, and finished with a lighthouse. I had found my journey through this remote, rugged and beautiful region with its abundant wildlife, totally relaxing and enjoyable, pure escapism and a chance to charge my batteries. It certainly was well off the beaten track.
Windswept Trees on the Southern Tip
    Campsites were as scarce as hen's teeth at this end of the Catlins, so I made the haul across to the most southerly city in the world, Invercargill. Here, one campsite seemed to have been swallowed up by a retail park. I located another on the outskirts of town. The reception was part of a huge motel cum restaurant, and was shut. Had the place closed down? I found the area at the back where tents could be erected and campervans could stand, and a solitary soul in the communal kitchen. He explained I should knock on the manager's door, and he showed me where that was. It was answered by a friendly smile belonging to a stocky fellow who was ever so easy going. "I'm having a day off, that's why the reception and restaurant are closed today. Just park yourself in any of the areas over there, and we can settle up tomorrow," he said. A very trusting chap.
    I went back to the communal kitchen and cooked an impromptu meal, and chatted to Aaron, the Kiwi chap who had pointed out the manager's office to me. He was one of a few folk who lived in the cabins permanently, similar setup to Te Kuiti really. He seemed to have some Maori blood in him. "Where ya from, bro?", he asked with a big beaming smile and a loud chuckle. The use of the word "bro" confirmed he had a lot of Maori blood. "It's great here," he said, "I have this big kitchen, shower and toilets next door, and I don't have to tidy up these facilities since cleaners do that, though I do wipe down the surfaces in the kitchen after I have used them. What else could I ask for?" He had grown up in Whanganui, but now worked as a sheep shearer down in Invercargill. We talked about the Rugby World Cup, and the attractions or lack of attractions of Invercargill. He was a happy soul. I bumped into him several times during my stay on the site, and he always had the same big smile and happy-go-lucky nature about him.
    Another resident popped in to microwave his supper. He treated me, the outsider, with suspicion, and I managed to get a grunt out of him. Yet another resident would occasionally hurtle in and check the oven contents before dashing out again. He was cooking a roast to impress his new girlfriend. A few more campers turned up in huge campervans, but these folk kept themselves to themselves and never ventured into the kitchen. Are they trying to tell me something?

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Catlins Invercargill

Uploaded from Te Anau lakeside on 17th January at 18:40

Last updated 17.1.2012