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Catlins Stewart Island

15th January 2012

Motorbike Hero, Living Fossils and Old Time Music in the Friendly City

    Another rain-soaked start to the day, brightened up by my burning my toast in the communal kitchen.
    Fortunately the smoke had cleared before a young woman arrived to sort out her breakfast. I gave her a bright, "Good morning!" She just ignored me. Since all the other campers had gone, I deduced she must be one of the cabin dwellers. We breakfasted in silence at opposite ends of the room. However, as we washed out cutlery and crockery, we had to use adjacent sinks. "What is there to do in Invercargill on a rainy day?" I asked, more of a means of starting a conversation than an earnest enquiry. She gave me a startled look, as if she had never been spoken to before. Then a solitary cog started engaging in her brain, and she replied, "Well, you can go paintballing, or go-karting, or go to the beach." I stared outside at the collapsing heavens and the rivulets flowing down the driveway. "Ahhh... ," I said slowly, and knew I didn't want to carry on the conversation.
Burt Munro in Action Sculpture with a Bit of Sunshine
    I went to the reception to pay my dues for the night's stay, and made enquiries about Stewart Island ferries and about trips out to Doubtful Sound from Manapouri. The lady gave me leaflets about Stewart Island, explaining a few things about activities over there. "I'll ask Alan about trips from Manapouri, he has a place up there by the lake, and he is bound to know," she said, and then called Alan through. He was the chap who the previous night had told me to park anywhere and pay in the morning. "Hi, we've already met," he beamed, and proceeded to fill me in on all the things I needed to know. The pair were extremely helpful and friendly. We came to an easy going arrangement that I could just come and go as I pleased, and if I stayed a night, then I could just square up in the morning.
    I cursed the rain as I was about to leave the office, and the woman said that a week ago, water trucks had been delivering water to certain districts. I found out later that they had just suffered the longest drought in 47 years. We both looked outside at the sheets of water tumbling down, and just smiled.
Invercargill Water Tower
    I headed off downtown to find the museum. Like Christchurch and Dunedin, this was a planned city, but it was flat and desolate sitting on an exposed stretch of land, with wide, treeless streets serving as thoroughfares for the strong westerly winds. After the beauty of the Catlins, this was a brutal shock to the system. Founded on reclaimed swamp in 1856 by Scots from Dunedin, it was the capital of the richest agricultural region on the South Island
    The city was forward looking in an academic sense. In 2000, tertiary education institutions were set up with community contributions offering free tuition to New Zealand and Australian students. The resulting increase in student population had had a positive impact on the arts and nightlife scene. Discovery of possible oil reserves nearby has also led to new investment in the town. Despite all this, the town looked tired, and had one facelift too many.
    The 1889 redbrick Water Tower provided a handy focal point in the city, but for me the gem was the Southland Museum and Art Gallery located in a large, white pyramid. An extremely interesting exhibition, entitled "Beyond the Roaring Forties", focused on New Zealand's sub-Antarctic islands, tiny windswept clusters lying hundreds of kilometres apart between the mainland and Antarctica. A human element was attached to these small islands, first of all how they were used by seal hunters and whalers, and also the moving accounts of people who had been ship wrecked on these desolate islands. Other displays covered climate, wildlife and more shipwrecks, all pertinent to Southland.
    Other exhibits included local and Maori art, natural history, geology, Victoriana, an Anne Frank exhibition, and most interestingly, an exhibition on Burt Munro, an Invercargill hero whose speed motorbike achievements were captured in the 2005 film, The World's Fastest Indian. As a young insolent tearaway, he blew all his life savings on a motorbike in his late teens, progressed to making his own bikes using the beach to make his castings, and was still breaking land speed records in his 70s.
    However, the real stars were the tuatara. These miniature dinosaur-like reptiles were unique to New Zealand. Apparently, these creatures had remained unchanged for over 225 million years, though how scientists can tell that is well beyond me, but they were proclaimed "living fossils". They were around before its adopted nation came into existence. On display in the tuatarium was the 100+ year-old-Henry, but his one-time mate, the 80 year-old-Mildred, was no longer around. They became parents in 2009. Crumbs, how was their love-making, their movements would make dead-slow look positively speeding. There was of course an exception to that rule; they snatched insects with an incredibly swift snap of the jaws, the ultra-slow chew must have been excruciating for the victims. Tuatara can live for 500 years, so time for some more kids yet before the grandkids come along.
Signpost at Stirling Point
    Whilst it was still pouring outside, I lingered in the museum with a coffee, just as a group of old timers were starting up their band. They had a variety of instruments between them: piano, electric organ, five accordions, three guitars, a fiddle, a tambourine and lots of enthusiasm. They tortured the sheltering visitors with a selection of waltzes and music best described as the sort you would hear in a northern working men's club during the 50s and 60s. A small group of pensioner groupies were huddled around clapping their appreciation, the highlight of their Sundays obviously.
    Next to the museum was Queens Park, and since the rain had abated, I took a quick stroll around. The summer flowers were doing their bravest to keep upright in the wind, and all the ducks seemed to be out on the grass. On the way out, I spotted a toilet and made a bee-line for it. It was one of these automated varieties: press a button to get in, press a button to close the door, music suddenly appears from nowhere, do your business, put your hands under an area for soap, then water, then a dryer, and press a button to open the door and leave, which also flushes the loo for you. One thing I can say about New Zealand, there are public loos virtually everywhere. They are all free, and they are all clean.
    I got back to my waggon as the next shower rolled in, so for want of something better to do, I drove down to Bluff, the departure point for ferries across the Foveaux Strait to Stewart Island, New Zealand's third main island. It was only a small place, and since it was one of the earliest places to be regularly visited by whalers, it had the reputation of being the oldest European settlement in the country, when it was known as Campbelltown. It was, and still is, the ideal place to shelter ships and boats from the elements of Foveaux Strait.
    I did the obligatory visit to Stirling Point to visit the signpost pointing to cities and islands; far more impressive than the Slope Point signpost. The point was named after Captain William Stirling, and the area was originally home to a whaling station established by Stirling for Johnny Jones in 1836. Then it was a quick trip to the Maritime Museum which featured much on Bluff and the Foveaux Strait area. Pride of place was the oyster boat, the Monica, which sat outside on dry land. Bluff was famous for its oysters. To round off my short excursion to Bluff, I drove up to the lookout to get a great panoramic view across to Stewart Island, Ruapuke and Dog Islands, Tiwai Peninsula with its huge aluminium smelting plant, Centre Island and the southern mountains.
Dog Island with New Zealand's Tallest Lighthouse
    In no time at all, Bluff had been explored, so I headed back to Invercargill to have a quick walk around the town, and it was quick. A stinging hail storm soon diverted me to the local cinema where I watched the latest Sherlock Holmes film. It was an excellent diversion, and the Kiwi applause at the end made me feel proud to be British.
    I returned to camp and popped into the reception to pay my dues for the night and see if it was possible to buy a beer at the bar (the site was mainly a motel with an attached restaurant and bar - camping was a side-line). Alan was there and told me, "Just follow the young lady there, she'll sort you out a drink." I followed her into the restaurant section which had a bar at one end, and she introduced herself as Alan's daughter. "Where is everyone?" I asked, gazing around the vacant room. "We had a party of 20 or so earlier this evening, but they had to be off early," she replied. She served me a beer, and asked where I was from. Rather than give a straight answer, I thought I'd tease her and came out with, "Have a guess." "Scotland," was her first guess, and "Wales," her second. I put her out of her misery, explained that my northern vowels might have confused her, and she laughed out loud. We talked about the Kiwi language skills; she had found the compulsory Maori lessons boring.
Panoramic View from Bluff Looking Across to Stewart Island      (please use scroll bar)

    At that point an older woman arrived into the bar to top up her wine glass. "Hello, where are you from?" she asked. I tried it on again with, "Have a guess." "I'd put you down as north of England," was her reply, and my jaw dropped. "How did you work that out? You were eavesdropping, weren't you?" I joked with her. She burst into laughter saying, "I come from Wales." I would never have guessed that in a million years, here Kiwi accent was perfect. "I went to visit Australia when I was younger, fell in love there, and stayed for 30 years. I came over here 7 years ago." "What made you move over to New Zealand?" I asked. "I met a Kiwi who I fell in love with," she laughed again. Rihan was Alan's wife.
    She still had fond memories of Wales, and she proudly pointed out a framed black and white photograph hanging on the wall depicting the chain works where her father used to work.
Stewart Island from Oreti Beach
    Alan now appeared, work had finished for the day. "Would you like another beer? This one is on me, you are my guest," he insisted. We chatted about his business, which like most New Zealand businesses had been through a rough patch over the last 18 months. His primary income was from the accommodation, with meals being secondary. Indeed the restaurant catered mainly for those staying on site. However, he was now coming round to the idea of extending the restaurant section and shifting his source of income.
    He talked about a couple of years he had worked in London in his younger years, and how an English work mate had introduced him to history and the wealth of it in Britain. He soon got hooked on it. He enjoyed the young, freshness of New Zealand, but now looked back fondly to Britain as a source of roots and history.
    His family originated from Ireland, and he had traced ancestral gravestones near Dublin dating back to the 18th century. His grandparents moved to Southland. His father had been born with a cleft palette, and was one of the first people in New Zealand to benefit from plastic surgery, pioneering work in those days. Despite his earlier setbacks, his father had learned to speak by the time he was 12, and went on to run a successful bakery at Tuatapere. Alan was proud of his ancestry.
    He was also full of community spirit, an example being unfolded as he recounted a struggle he had to preserve a unique disused railway bridge at Riverton, constructed out of stout timbers and steel. He had a vision of it being an integral part of the Hump Ridge Track. He had commissioned a survey team to determine the soundness of the construction, and it was found to be in very good condition. A costing exercise revealed it would take about $300k to modify it to be a walkway, and thereafter it would cost around $15k each year to maintain. Alan felt that the returns back into the community from hikers would justify the expense. The case went before an extraordinary meeting with the locals being in attendance and a councillor who did not approve the idea. The councillor swung the argument by telling the locals the expense would have to be borne by them alone. That killed the idea dead. The councillor had won, and a contractor was appointed to dismantle the bridge, and the same contractor was given all salvage rights. The contractor charged $700k for his services, which the locals had to pay, and made a killing of $300k by selling the stout timbers to property developers in Queenstown. Now, by chance, the councillor lived just above the bridge, and his view had always been obstructed by the bridge. He now had a superb view. Funny coincidence, that.
    I had enjoyed our chat, and I was touched when he said he had raised a lot of supressed issues which had weighed on his mind for some time, and he said he felt good about getting it off his chest.
    I reflected on my day. Like a lot of New Zealand towns and cities, this city had its own motto, "Invercargill is the friendly City". The folks I met certainly seemed friendly enough, perhaps the city had nothing better to offer than friendliness.

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Catlins Stewart Island

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

Last updated 17.1.2012