Monthly Archives: July 2009

islands, isolation, and a serious need for fireworks.

“The face of the earth is changing so rapidly that soon there will be little of primitive nature left. In the old world, it is practically gone forever. Here, then, is Stewart Island’s prime advantage, and one hard to overestimate. It is an actual piece of the primeval world.” – Leonard Cockayne, 1909

Growing up, I was in search of the perfect small town. I filled a folder with design after design of 1950s-esque Pleasantvilles, black-and-white layouts of Main Streets and Boulevards, of soda fountains, one-stop shops and towns with one high school. I loved coming up with street names and prominent geographical features, imagining anecdotes of how the owner of the diner was in love with the fire chief. Little did I know that what I sketched out already existed. It wasn’t ‘til I sailed to Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third largest island, that I discovered the little haven of utopia that exists south of the South Island…

…But that wasn’t until I’d reached the island. The ferry ride over is a whole other story. My experience with ferries has always been with sort of substantial pieces of construction, whether crossing the English Channel to France, the Baltic Sea from Estonia to Finland, or even just to Ocracoke Island in North Carolina. I’d been used to the kind of ships with the capacity to hold hundreds of vehicles and that could almost double as cruise ships for all the amenities they offer. But over all that, what they offered me was a kind of stability of being able to handle any wave that came our way. So imagine my surprise when I arrived in the town of Bluff, from where I was to board the ferry to Stewart Island, only to find that I was to leave my rental car in storage for the night as the ferry itself was a mere 23-metre catamaran (about 75 feet). I would be crossing the Foveaux Strait in a catamaran?

It was every bit of treacherous as it sounds…or so it seemed to my stomach. For any of you who have surfed, or even boogie-boarded, before, think of the way your board goes sometimes when you go over a wave while paddling out: vertical. Now imagine the ferry approaching the waves of Foveaux Strait in a similar manner. This did not bode well for my stomach. I’m normally fine in situations like this, or on things like roller coasters – but I suppose the difference there being a two-minute ride followed by a two-hour wait before the next onslaught of twists and turns. The first vertical lift and dip on the ferry, my stomach dropped. I knew I was in trouble. The second drop, I took a deep breath and rolled my eyes in a “you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me” kind of way, but one of the ferry attendants happened to catch my look. She walked over and advised taking off a few layers to stay cool. And as reluctant as I was to shed the bubble of warmth that is my black Kathmandu puffer jacket, I appreciated the tip as it wasn’t long before I was clutching the back of the seat in front of me, breaking into a sweat despite the frigid air, and reaching for the conveniently-placed white motion-sickness bags. Fifteen minutes into the crossing and I lost it.

I had spent the previous night in Invercargill, where I met another girl in my hostel also bound for Stewart Island the next day. An exchange student from Germany, Jenny obviously came from stronger stock, for she sat next to me on the ferry relatively placid in comparison to my constant resorts to the white bags. The attendant even brought over a cool compress for the back of my neck…was I really that much of a weakling? But I had passed the point of caring. When we reached blessed land, I made straight for the lone supermarket on the island and loaded up on ginger beer and saltine crackers. Jenny and I checked into our hostel for the night and promptly settled down on the couches of the lounge for a little Ferry Recovery Time. It was cold, raining, and all I could really be bothered doing was reading and nursing my poor fragile stomach back to health.

At which point you have to ask yourself, is this really what I came all this way for? And I could’ve easily spent all day on that couch, but thankfully had pre-booked a Village and Bays Tour, whose $40 ticket price was enough to get me out and about, if only for a little while. As it turned out, the tour ended up being completely worth the money – nice when that happens, eh? The woman leading the tour, Kylie, grew up on the island, except for a few years spent away in school and university, and was able to lend a local’s perspective on the town as she drove four Asian tourists and myself around. If there is one word to describe Stewart Island’s position in relation to the rest of New Zealand, it would undoubtedly be isolation. Permanent residents of the village, Oban (or Halfmoon Bay, as it’s also known, a perfect name which I am totally stealing for my next town), barely number 400, and about twice that number move in during the summer for seasonal work.

And you know how I mentioned the miniature utopia to be found here? This is a place with no dentist, no hospital, no high school, and no doctor, only two district nurses who run a medical clinic. This is place with one police offer who spends the bulk of his time processing search and rescue forms from hikers. This is a place with thirteen children enrolled in the primary school, and where the town flies a hairdresser over from Invercargill every six weeks or so, who then sets up shop in the fire station for a couple of days. This is a place with a  six-hole golf course and an Olympic-sized basketball court, although as Kylie shared, “I’m not sure how many Olympic games we think we’re gonna hold.” This is a place living in another time.

One supermarket (“the shop”), one pub, two churches…it’s a town on a scale unlike anything I’d ever seen…even in Iowa! And while fishing has always been the main source of income, Kylie remarked that they are evolving slowly to adapt to the increase in tourism over the years. But the island is doing so in a way that allows them to remain in control of how tourism influences their lifestyle. The last thing they want to become is another Queenstown (no offence, Queenstown!). And Stewart Islanders are remarkably self-sufficient. They’ve got their own diesel-fueled power station and rely on rainwater for their household supply of water – I suppose you have to do something with all that water given that it rains 275 days a year.

And after all that, the residents of Oban take up only 2% of the island – a fact they’re understandably proud of. With another 13% in Maori hands, the remaining 85% comprise Rakiura National Park, the country’s 14th national park that opened in 2002 with a  ceremony even attended by New Zealand’s own Edmund Hillary. The island doesn’t come off as terribly large, but apparently one of the tramps takes twelve days, so that gives you some idea as to the hidden treasure Stewart Island seems to be. All on its own, there was even a bronze plaque with the phrase, “I must go over to New Zealand some day – Stewart Islander.” I was surprised by the number of Kiwis I spoke with in Christchurch who have never even visited the island. But I suppose it’s often our backyard that gets neglected when we’re so eager to walk out the front door and explore.

Our last stop on the tour was Lee Bay, where my photo-journalistic-need-for-photo-ops was delighted to find a massive rust-red chain link just chilling on the beach. But it did more than break up shot after shot of misty coastline; it was there in connection to the original Maori name for the island – Te Punga o Te Waka a Mauri, or “The Anchor Stone of Maui’s Canoe.” The name originates from the Maori creation legend of how Maui, a Polynesian voyager, and his crew pulled Stewart Island up from the sea to use as an anchor for their canoe – the South Island – as they “raised the great fish” – the North Island. And as Neville Peat wrote in 1992:

“Stewart Island anchors more than Maui’s canoe. It anchors in its rocks, rivers and rugged shores, and in its garnishment of plants and animals, the hope of generations unborn that places like this will always exist.”

The tour complete, I braved the elements (you know, the usual rain-wind-cold combo to be expected in mid-winter) and hiked to Observation Rock (only because the sign said two-minute walk, so don’t be impressed), bought supplies for dinner from The Shop, and unsuccessfully tried to get a mocha from two different establishments (one of which was closed until September…blast you, winter!). A part of me felt I should take more advantage of my time on the island, but a [huge] other part was cold and just wanted to curl up on a couch and hibernate. When I returned to my hostel, I found one guy in the same place in the lounge – asleep in front of the TV – where he had been when I left for my tour earlier. So I didn’t feel too bad after all as I cooked up some ravioli, cracked open my book, and settled down to spend my first Fourth of July sans fireworks on Stewart Island. 

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to the ends of the earth…or just the south island.

It’s not often we opt for the scenic route in life. It seems so often that directness is the norm, whether in a literal route to a destination or more cryptically in relation to life. When you sigh, “Guess we’re taking the scenic route,” its usually because you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way and find your current path a little heavy on the gravel side, a little easy on the paved. But so it was that I decided to follow the Southern Scenic Route from Dunedin to Invercargill, an officially government-sanctioned scenic route full of all sorts of official detours and side-roads and look-outs that make you feel a little better about them because of the official Department of Conservation road-signs and placards denoting them.

And wouldn’t you know I took the scenic route to get to the scenic route. I had been planning on following State Highway One to Balclutha, about 80 kilometers outside Dunedin, but on my way out of the city, I saw a sign for the Route and decided to give that a go. Of course that was the first and last sign I saw by that point. There was a car in front of me I vainly hoped might be following the path as well, but after bordering on stalker for several streets that seemed to fold into themselves, it was clear trailing him would do no good. I was getting nowhere. Then, in that same spirit of desperation with which, after being dominated by a series of waves at the beach, having lost sight of shore and just about resigning yourself to be another statistic in the fight against rip tides, you abandon all and power to shore – I turned down street after street in search of some sign towards the city centre, determined to come out alive. When I made it out of the maze that was the industrial-looking suburbs of Dunedin, I joyfully retraced the same path as before (we all know how much fun that is after being horribly lost) and got down to business.

The Southern Scenic Route, reputedly the first touring route in New Zealand, stretches 440 kilometers long (about 273 miles) from just south of Dunedin down around the coast to Invercargill up to Milford Sound, most remarkably cutting through the Catlins, an area in the southeast corner of the country featuring both coastline and temperate rainforest. The Route was the kind of thing I was going to need some help with, as with only a few hours of driving time to devote to it, I unfortunately needed to be selective; not every township or lookout could make the cut this time around. With my priorities set thanks to some commentary found online, I drove on.

Not long after entering Clutha Country, “Where Everyone Says Hello,” as a sign informed me with the image of a hand – waving, I presume? – I went out of my way for the first time to take in Nugget Point, or as the Maori name means, “rocks standing up out of water.” Makes sense, right? The road to Nugget Point was utterly unpaved, utterly narrow, and utterly frightening with the sea only a few meters to my left the whole time. The sky was burdened with heavy clouds, the sea beat against the shore – and still I drove, not quite sure when I had reached the point. I went as far as I could go, and that came in the form of an 18-wheel Mac truck, facing me in the middle of the road. All I could think was, “How the heck did that get there?” And, of course, I had been the one and only soul on the road the whole time – until I started reversing, because Lord knows not the best driving instructor in the world could manage a three-point turn in those conditions – and there appeared another car, with headlights like a pair of menacing eyes, but they soon got the picture and backed out towards the parking lot as well. At least I knew I wasn’t the only crazy person attempting to see Nugget Point in gale-force winds.

I parked and got out to snap a quick photograph of the vista, but one look at my car made me stop and say, “Whoa!” It was coated in mud, in that splattered sort of way 4x4s and SUVs always are, from the rims of the tires to the bottom edge of the windows. I was rather pleased with the state of my car, as it seemed to tell the world, “She’s not messing around. She has been places.” For, you have to see, I’m actually a bit insecure about my status as a “backpacker” and welcome any opportunity to legitimize it. Sure I’ve got a proper backpacker’s backpack…and an oversized, rolling duffel bag. It’s not like I’m really living out of it. Nor out of a hostel – I love my own space and routine too much to camp out in a hostel long-term, unlike other friends I know. Or camp out at all, for that matter. I don’t “do” the outdoors like many others of my kind in New Zealand, but I am still transient like them, so I’m constantly seeking reassurance that I’m not letting my breed down. It’s like I’m the needy one in the relationship, always whining, “Validate me!” So the mud on my car was all I needed to feel like I am indeed getting places, going off the beaten path, and having a bit of adventure along the way.

The pictures I took at Nugget Point (and also at Kaka Point and Roaring Bay, where I again missed the penguins coming home!) were the fastest I’d taken in my life. The wind was ferocious and the conditions were far from favorable, what with the oppressive greyness of the sky and all. It didn’t take long to figure out this hopping in and out of the car for five-second vistas and photos was to be the run of the day. This would be no time for relishing the moment or lingering for another look. This was a day of getting things done. Someone could’ve put up “No loitering” signs for all I cared, I wasn’t sticking around. I wanted to soak in the miles of coastline that stretched on farther than I could see, the odd shade of seafoam green of the water set against the cliffs, but soaking in anything besides the rain was out of the question. The slogan of Kaka Point – the town at Nugget Point – may have been “Sun, Sand, Scenery,” but I had little of any of it that day, much to my displeasure.

My guide to the region had recommended stopping in at The Point Café, Bar and Restaurant (man, have they covered all their bases as an establishment) for a coffee, and I went so far as pulling into the parking lot, but for some reason couldn’t be bothered getting out of my car if I didn’t absolutely have to. I soon arrived in Owaka, a town of about 400 whose distinctions include the slogan, “Place of the Canoe,” and status as the only town in the Catlins. The town itself was comprised of a few shops, restaurants like the Lumber Jack Café, and a museum/library combo, which I begrudgingly paid five dollars to enter (in a location such as that, can you really afford to charge your visitors? But pay I did…c’est la vie.) I didn’t begrudge them for too long, though, as I’m easily won over by sweet Maori names with sweet meanings. The museum’s, for instance, was Wahi Kahuika, “The Meeting Place – a rest on your journey.” They are obviously aware that Owaka isn’t often the final destination for many in their travels, so I loved the gesture of them being there as a worthwhile stopping point.

The museum wasn’t extensive by any means, but presented everything in such an appealing manner. Even the design of the building itself drew on the history of the Catlins, the main gallery modeled after a ship as whaling and sealing were originally important industries. The region draws its name from Edward Catlin (1792 – 1856), captain of a supply ship to whaling stations who tried to buy the land off of Maori chiefs. Then there was Tommy Chaslands, also highlighted in the museum, a whaler who underwent quite an ordeal at Tautuku when a whale smashed his boat with its tail – he was one of three men to survive. For all his efforts, a certain promontory was named Chaslands Mistake…probably not exactly the legacy he was looking to leave.

Other exhibits focused on topics as diverse as timber and logging, to whisky, to churches in the Catlins, although I had to pause and think at a certain sign posted in the main gallery:

Please do not feel the exhibits.

Please do not feed the exhibits.

Please do not free the exhibits.

Please do enjoy your visit.

Feel? Okay, fine, I’ll let the carved Maori canoe alone. But feed? free? I didn’t know which was worse – confusion, as there were no live exhibits to be seen, or fear – what was lurking in dark corners that could possibly be fed or freed that I’ve somehow managed to miss? But alas, I did enjoy my visit, especially the two other patrons (there for the library, however) who ran through the building in their socks. I’d also seen the sign at the front asking us to remove our shoes to avoid tracking in mud, but they were serious? I also enjoyed the ratio of staff to customers and how the four women working for the museum sat clustered around the main desk with cups of tea. I left the place with nothing but respect, though, after reading a wee sign in a toilet stall:

Behind every small museum, there is a small town and behind this small town there is a large amount of community spirit. The welcome mat is still out. See it and feel it at the Owaka Museum. There is more to Owaka than meets the eye. Owaka Museum, a must-stop-and-see destination on your voyage of discovery to the Catlins.

It can be so easy to disregard small towns, to brush them off in favor of something a bit more…substantial. And while the shift in scale and size was such a shock initially upon my move to New Zealand, it has truly taught me just that – no town is too small.

After stopping and starting the first few hours, I was glad for the chance to drive straight through places like Papatowai – “Where Forest Meets Sea” – and the Southland District – “People First” – until I reached the pièce de résistance of the day: Slope Point. At 46°40’40” latitude and 169°00’11” longitude, it is the southernmost point of the South Island. Similar to Nugget Point, it was only accessible via fifteen kilometers of brutal gravel roads – have they never heard of paving in these places?? But in all seriousness, the roads were not kind to my car – four-wheeling in a four-door sedan isn’t the best of ideas apparently. I literally started fish-tailing on two occasions and only by the grace of God did I somehow correct myself, because only He knows how long I would’ve sat there waiting for help.

I then had a twenty-minute walk across rather pastoral-looking farmland from the road to the point, or to the ends of the earth, as it felt. Even though I knew I would be sailing to Stewart Island the next day and thus even further south, the whole mission still had the allure of going to the end of the line about it – the road met its end, the water met the land. The isolation was palpable. When I neared the edge of the cliff to get a better angle for a photo and a gust of wind picked up, I had the thought that I could die here and not a soul would know. I could be swept off the cliff and flung out to sea and that would be my life. Always a fun thought, eh? It’s safe to say I took a few steps back at that point.

And just when I thought there would be no definitive point – which we all know is needed for photojournalistic purposes – there appeared a blessedly bright yellow sign proclaiming SLOPE POINT in bold, capital letters. And just because someone somewhere loves me, there were even arrows pointing towards the equator (5,140 km) and…the South Pole! (4,803 km). Honestly, you cannot get a better picture than that.

Photos taken and hood secured, I happily staggered through the wind back to the car, ready to finish up the drive for the day. Friday night in Invercargill…bring it on.

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a day in the life of a scottish settlement.

Having arrived in Dunedin after nightfall on a Wednesday and with plans to depart for Invercargill early Friday morning, I was left with a lone full day to blitz my way through the city and blitz I did. A friend of a friend, Tim, was letting me crash at his flat during my stay, and even drove me around the city my first night and up into the hills for some spectacular almost-aerial views. But I’d forgotten how strangely exhausted hours upon hours of driving can leave you, so after some fish korma (actually not as weird as it sounds), boysenberry ice cream, and half of The Karate Kid, it was time for some sleep. There’s nothing like being able to see your breath in your bedroom to reassure you that, no, you’re not going crazy…it is cold in here.

I woke up Thursday only slightly affected with hypothermia and headed into town. I’m not used to traveling with a car, so the first order of the day was finding a parking garage for a couple of hours so I could explore the city on foot. With that taken care of, I made a brief stop into an internet café, where a malfunctioning computer system meant I only had to pay a dollar (score!) before properly taking in the city.

Next to Christchurch, Dunedin is the second largest city on the South Island, its population coming in at a little under 120,000. With the third largest, Nelson, registering at 58,700, it gives you some idea of the jump in size and significance of Dunedin – New Zealand’s “first great city” as many claim. The sky was clear and blue, the sun bright, and only a few clouds that made for an excellent backdrop against the stunning Victorian and Edwardian architecture. At the heart of Dunedin is the Octagon, a central square of sorts, except obviously not, with cafés, restaurants, pubs and bars all clustered around its eight sides, as well as some of the more prominent buildings of the city – St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Regent Theatre, the Public Art Gallery, and the Dunedin Railway Station not too far off. I had a look inside at the mosaic tiled floor of the booking hall, where groups of people – mostly Asian tourists – waited to board the Taieri Gorge Railway.

From there, it was on to the Otago Settlers Museum, which aptly describes itself as a social history museum, to build on my basic knowledge that Dunedin and the surrounding areas in the Otago region were settled largely by Scottish immigrants. Indeed, in 1844, Frederick Tuckett, a surveyor remembered for saying, “If there is a good locale for a settlement in this island, I mean to have it” (and I can’t think of a better attitude to start out with!), first went in search for a good site for New Edinburgh. In 1845, plans continued with help from the Association of Lay Members of the Free Church of Scotland, and by 1848 the settlers had officially arrived…but weren’t greeted by much, so it seems. Apparently those in charge of preparations weren’t given adequate notice to the arrival of the ships, so the women and children actually stayed on board for a while until the men could hastily throw together two sets of barracks. They should be praised for their adherence to morals throughout the ordeal, though, as in one row of barracks, married couples stayed in the middle while single men and women were kept at either end. We wouldn’t want things getting out of hand, of course, after four restless months on a ship.

Just as the founders of Christchurch clung closely to their English roots, those responsible for settling Dunedin did the same. The name of the city comes from Dun Eideann, the Scottish Gaelic wood for Edinburgh – and on my part, I’m glad they went with something a little less obvious than New Edinburgh, because we all know the world is already filled with enough New York’s and New Jersey’s. The city’s surveyor, Charles Kettle, made a huge effort to replicate a similar street lay-out and feel to Dunedin as to that found in Edinburgh, even using many of the same street names. In fact, over 50% of Dunedin’s 78 suburbs have names found in Scotland or the British Isles.

The museum also featured a well-done exhibit titled “Across the Ocean Waves: Otago Immigration in the Age of Sail.” Besides a re-creation of the steerage quarters on an immigration ship and video clips highlighting the stories and lives of settlers (but I won’t highlight their acting…), the exhibit really made it clear as to the sacrifice these settlers made. In the nineteenth century, Alexander Hume penned “The Scottish Emigrant’s Farewell”:

Nae mair I’ll climb the Pentland’s steep,

Nor wander by the Esk’s clear river,

I seek a home far o’er the deep,

My native land, farewell forever.

It made me incredibly grateful for the advancements in transportation since the four-month journey they used to take, that even while my flight may still cost a thousand or two, I can do what I’m doing, experiencing life in a foreign country, without the sense of permanence the Scottish settlers must’ve felt as they departed for New Zealand.

Besides feeling nostalgic in the settlers’ exhibit and getting to know Josephine, the world’s first double-ended locomotive that now finds its home in the museum, I have to say my favorite part was found in Toytown, featuring the “toys and games of Yesteryear.” There were two puzzles – the Puzzle of Britain, “One puzzle no Nazi can solve!” and the Puzzle of Europe, “The Greatest Jig-Saw Problem of the Age”:

The Nazis have battered their crooked sign into the face of Europe, shattering nearly all of it – except Britain. The task that lies before us is that, whatever the cost, we must – PUT EUROPE TOGETHER AGAIN!

Maybe it’s that World War II is already my favorite period in history, or just that I’ve never seen a product so brazenly defiant and yet so comical in its rallying of the wartime spirit, but I loved them. Do you ever feel like you walk out of museums like that remembering the totally wrong thing? Like you’ve missed the point? Despite excellent presentations on the history and culture of the region, it will be those two puzzles that stay in my memory the longest, no doubt. Well done, Candace, well done!

I wasn’t much better in the Otago Museum. By this point, the sun had tragically disappeared, the wind and cold had picked up, and I was honestly just looking forward to the mocha I planned on treating myself to in the museum café once I was done. But I did spent some time in the “Southern Land, Southern People” exhibit, which showcased the ‘southern character’ of those forced to deal with the climate and landscape of the Otago region and how it’s shaped them. I was surprised to see their ‘southern hospitality’ mentioned as well, as for me, coming from the American South, that phrase conjures up images of iced tea and pecan pie (pronounced pee-can, of course, none of this pe-cahn business), and green bean casserole. But it just goes to show you the different forms it can take around the world.

The exhibit also discussed Dunedin’s rise in commercial influence in the late 1800s with the gold rush and growing popularity of sheep farming. So much so, that its growth in power meant Dunedin was the first city in New Zealand to have public transport, a public art gallery, botanic gardens, a daily newspaper, street gas lighting, a university and a girls’ secondary school. Were they busy or what?

My museum quota finally complete for the day, I held onto every drop of warmth that I could from the mocha before a brisk walk through the Dunedin Public Gardens, which surprisingly contained a plant collection from the Southern tip of Africa and a small Japanese landscape celebrating Dunedin’s Sister City relationship with Otaru, Japan. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about public gardens in New Zealand, it’s that you never know what you’ll stumble upon. While in London, the parks are flat, serenely straightforward, and perhaps pristinely predictable, the parks I’ve seen down under tend to have a bit of an edge to them, more of a taste of the exotic – something I can most definitely appreciate.

I hadn’t a minute to spare by this point – already half past three and I’d yet to venture onto the Otago Peninsula, home to Glenfalloch Gardens, an albatross colony, the pyramids (no, not what you’re thinking…), and Larnarch Castle – New Zealand’s only castle – so I had no excuse to miss it! They’d sneakily arranged the gate entry system so that you couldn’t even drive up to the castle without paying at least ten dollars for a gardens pass. Which I did, and it came with a free cup of coffee or tea as an apology for the ballroom being temporarily closed. Apology gladly accepted, as my particular pass wouldn’t allow me access to the room in the first place. I had a quick run of the gardens, not having enough time to follow the Native Plant Trail brochure I’d been given, and saw what I could of the castle’s interior through the locked front door. Construction began in 1871, funded by a certain William Larnarch – banker and financier extraordinaire as well as Minister of the Crown – who also happened to put a bullet through his own head while in Parliament. Maybe that’s what lent the whole pace a quite eerily feel, from the Alice-in-Wonderland-esque statues of miniature kings and queens throughout the gardens to the heavy fog shrouding the castle in its very appropriate veil of mystery.

The fog continued to hang over the landscape as I left the Castle and drove around the rest of the peninsula, resting on top of the hills that rose from the harbor. I’ve never been to Scotland, but imagine it not looking too different from the Otago Peninsula that day. Misty hills, clusters of dark green shrubs and trees, and leaning wooden fences winding through open pastures. Sunlight and blue skies tend to exhilarate me, but there was such an aura of melancholy about the vaporous peninsula, one that I reveled in as my car traced along the narrow gravel roads.

Indeed, the hills were evidence alone I had finally left the Canterbury Plains, and if that wasn’t enough, Dunedin boasts of having the world’s steepest street – Baldwin Street. When you see it in person, your first reaction is kind of like, “That’s it?” similar to viewing the Pyramids of Giza, the Eiffel Tower, or other famed landmarks for the first time. “This is what all the fuss is about?” you find yourself asking. My first night in Dunedin, my host/connection/new friend Tim took me up the street in his car and told me we had to go at least 40 km/hour or risk the front of the car actually flipping over and sending us into a steady stream of somersaults down the hill. With nightmarish visions of a death of staggering proportions, Baldwin Street immediately earned my respect, even more when Tim’s car shut off on us when we’d almost reached the top. So I decided to return to the attraction my last morning in the city; partly because I didn’t have my camera with me the first time and, as I like to say, when I travel no stone goes unphotographed; and partly to purchase an official certificate proving that I did indeed scale the heights of Baldwin Street. I even paid the two extra dollars to have it laminated and everything (it was raining, after all), so don’t say I’m not legit.

And with that, I was called further south, turned my car towards State Highway One, and carried on…

 

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limestone, boulder stones, and other geological phenomenons.

After months of planning and scheming, the day finally came to leave Christchurch. I don’t quite remember when I got the idea to travel to Queenstown via a roadtrip around the southern half of the South Island, but needless to say, the idea came nonetheless and I was soon on my way in a rental car. Gratefully, the rental company had enough foresight (or maybe enough unfortunate customer incidents?) to plaster a bright yellow sticker screaming “KEEP LEFT” with a  bold arrow beneath the speedometer.  No doubt many collisions were avoided because of this, although confusion still ensued at every roundabout I came to. One day I will remember to pause and wait for cars already rounding the roundabout!

My destination on the first day was Dunedin, a city about five hours south of Christchurch. The drive was to be as simple as following State Highway 1 directly down the coast, which, coincidentally, as the “most significant road” in the country’s roading network, spans the entire length of both main islands – from the tip of Cape Reinga on the North Island to the port city of Bluff at the bottom of the South Island. But while impressive, it also meant there was never any real need to consult my newly acquired New Zealand Travellers Road Atlas – something I was quite keen to do, perhaps a little overeager, no? I had it open on the passenger seat but alas, someone was just a little too good at their job in the Signage Department and had designated every twist and turn to a t.

It took me a couple of hours to get in the traveling spirit, to get into that mindset of curiosity and adventure and constantly pulling off to the side of the road to ask “why?” and “how?” and “when?” The major cities along Route 1 (excuse my lapse into the American term for highway) are spread out quite nice and even. After an hour on the road, I came to Ashburton, a city of about 17,550 that also happens to be known as Ashvegas. Now as tempting of a place as it sounds to visit, I decided to keep driving and after another hour, arrived shortly in Timaru. I hadn’t heard much about the second-largest city in Canterbury, except that it’s been featured in a song by New Zealand-band Deja Voodoo, “Today, Tomorrow, Timaru”:

I’ve been thinking about leaving this town

Saying goodbye to Caroline Bay

Since you left me how can I be happy here

I’ve gotta go away

So I get in my car pointing it north

Heading straight up State Highway One

Maybe tomorrow I’ll come around

But for now I’m leaving town

Today tomorrow Timaru

That’s where I met you

Today tomorrow Timaru

That’s where I left you

Although not the most uplifting of songs, I can imagine Timarunians being quite taken with the reference, as my hometown occasionally receives similar attention from the number of rap and R&B artists that have proliferated from the area (not to mention, Michael Vick…).

Two hours down and my third brought me to Oamaru, a town of similar size and name to Timaru, but one that actually got me out of my car. It was one of those moments where the road forks, the state highway continuing to the right, but your hands subconsciously turning the steering wheel towards the left, where a sign for “historic district” piques your interest. It was also the time of day when the mid-afternoon sun becomes absolutely radiant and spills the most golden of light over the city before setting. I was immediately struck by the architecture of the place, a main street lined with classical columns, flourishes, and Victorian facades, side alleyways still lined with remnants of cobblestone, turn-of-the-century lanterns, and even a penny farthing bicycle propped against the wall outside a bakery. How could I not be up for exploring the place?

I was in love. I found an unattended gravel parking lot, left my car there (probably against my better judgment), and set off towards the historic area on an absolute high, dare I say, giddy? Nothing excites me more while traveling than beautiful architecture, and here I’d unexpectedly stumbled onto a little piece of Europe tucked away along the coast of New Zealand. It’s funny how the guidebooks and websites say Christchurch is the most English out of the whole country, because clearly they never ventured further south. What European vibe I failed to feel to any strong degree in Christchurch was instantly found in Oamaru. A brochure on historic Oamaru titled “A Legacy in Limestone” writes that the city is home to “some of the finest 19th century streetscapes one could hope to find in New Zealand.” I’d never heard of the term ‘streetscape’ before but have now officially adopted it for frequent use. I walked through the Harbour and Tyne Historic Precinct, the original commercial district of Oamaru, “where the past becomes the present” as a guide service claims and where I listened with perfect contentment to the clicking of my boots against the cobblestones as it reverberated against the sun-drenched limestone buildings.

I should mention the limestone, as no visit to Oamaru is really complete without at least a brief introduction to the historical significance of the material. To learn a bit more, I popped into the North Otago Museum on Thames Street, who have perhaps the best slogan I’ve seen for such an establishment:

Where there are riches there are people; and where there are people, stories flow.

Being a writer and all, the idea of flowing stories was one too good to pass up, and once in the museum, I was pleased to find an excellent display on limestone. Quarries at Cave Valley and Kakanui were noted to contain massive quantities of the stone as early as 1875, and throughout the 1870s and 1880s, many of the main buildings had already been constructed from the local treasure of a building material. So much so, in fact, that Oamaru became known as ‘The White City’ and was admired for its “early appearance of permanence and stability.” Even today, the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust – established in 1988 – works to preserve the historic district. Good on ‘em!

In addition to limestone, Oamaru is almost as equally well-known for its blue penguin colony. Although I didn’t have time to wait around until they “came home” for the night (or the money, for that matter…) I did drive out to the complex and stuck around long enough to see a statue of a giant penguin carved from limestone. It was like everything Oamaru stands for, rolled into one. Brilliant! I could’ve spent hours more in this unexpectedly delightful town, but a schedule’s a schedule and I needed to meet up with my connection in Dunedin by six o’clock.

Before I powered through the rest of my drive for the day, I stopped off in Moeraki as well for a glimpse of the famed Moeraki boulders. Maori legend has it that after the legendary canoe, the Araiteuru, wrecked at Shag Point, a number of calabashes, kumaras and eel baskets washed ashore at Moeraki in the form of the large spherical stones. Take it for what’s it worth, I however was fascinated by them, scattered across a rather desolate beach (I almost wrote “littered,” but decided that wasn’t quite the connotation I was aiming for). A description of the route along the Northern Otago Coast had warned that the boulders were a huge tourist attraction and the beach would undoubtedly be crowded, but I suppose visiting in the dead of winter sort of minimizes your chances of that happening. Apparently, each stone weighs several tons and some reach three meters in diameter. Some are in tact, some have cracked and split, but all are septarian concretions. If that means as little to you as it did to me, it’s where minerals have built up around a central core over the years.  

While I hopped around from boulder to boulder (okay, not really, but I wish! more like skirted around their base), I got a phone call from an employer in Queenstown confirming my hours and start date upon arrival. Everything was falling into place!

By that point, sunlight was waning and the cold increasing and I had places to be. Back in the car, I blasted the heat, scanned the radio for signs of life, and made it to Dunedin after a wonderfully excellent start to the trip.

 

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open mouth, insert foot.

I just Googled the idiom “foot-in-mouth” in hopes of a clever anecdote explaining the history of the phrase. There wasn’t much to be found, except a possible connection to Irish Parliamentarian Sir Boyle Roche, who, in the 18th century, had the unfortunate habit of saying the wrong thing, for instance, “Half the lies our opponents tell about me are not true!” Poor guy…but funny back-story or not, it’s safe to say I have recently done just that and to such an awful degree.

While living and working in Christchurch, I often included stories about my office in blog posts – either because they’d made me laugh or had exasperated me beyond belief, I thought I’d pass them on. Now, of course, everyone tells me the cardinal rule of journalism is to change the names of anyone and anything you reference in your writing. And I’d heard this plenty of times before, especially in magazine articles where an asterisk by someone’s name informs you, “All names have been changed to protect the identities of persons involved.” Right. Somehow it just didn’t cross my mind to do the same when I wrote about my office or friends I had made in Christchurch.

So last Monday, my first day of not working there, I was in a car with some good friends out exploring Sumner and Lyttelton, when my phone rang. It was my friend from the office: “Hey Candace…so this is going to be kind of an awkward conversation, but we’ve found your blog. Everyone has read it and is pretty pissed off at you right now.” My stomach dropped and all I could think was CRAP!!!! or some other worse equivalent. Of course they were pissed off, who wouldn’t be?! I think it’s safe to say my face went even whiter than it already is after two consecutive winters and indeed, everyone in the car thought someone had died by the way my voice changed.

And, in a way, someone had died – me, the person the office thought I was, and any good opinion they might have held of me. I had left there on my last day on such good terms. They had been so good to me and this is how I repay them? By writing about the things they’ve said and unpleasant interactions with customers? Who did I think I was? Everything I’d written came flooding back into my mind and I could do was cringe and hang my head in shame.

It was one of those things where you don’t realize to what extent you’ve gone wrong until much later. It took that phone call for that to happen, for me to go, just what was I thinking? A major source for it might well be that all throughout May or June, I’d read nothing but Bill Bryson. I’ve written before on my high regard for him and how I aim to emulate his style in my own writing. But what exactly is his style? Anyone who’s read one chapter of Bryson will know his penchant for biting, sarcastic, cynical comments, all the while being incredibly, side-splittingly funny. He is, after all, probably the only writer who could make me laugh out loud about the Appalachian Trail.

So there I was, brimming with Bryson-isms and frustrations over colleagues and customers, and the result is that I wrote some things that I, in all reality, had no right to publish. For a week, I was filled with every synonym for remorse – guilt, embarrassment, humiliation, shame…utterly sick to my stomach. And to augment the feelings, I left Christchurch two days later for a five-day roadtrip around the bottom of the South Island…by myself. So the further I drove from Christchurch, it felt only like I was running away from my horrible mistake, with nothing to distract me but my own thoughts. From Dunedin to Owaka to Slope Point, all I could think of were the things I’d written. While just trying to be “funny” and Bryson-esque, it was clear I’d come off as nothing more than mocking and condescending. “I’m sorry” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

After hitting such a low point, it was tempting to just “throw the towel in,” and all such other idioms, and give up the writing career before it has even begun. But that would be the easy thing to do and since when is easy ever the best option? OR I could own up to my mistake, send a letter of apology to the office, and try and learn from this, which is exactly what I’m trying to do. Thankfully it happened while my blog “readership” barely includes my mother and two friends from home – and now, of course, fifteen ex-colleagues who all have every right to hate me.

A friend of mine recently commented that he prefers “small, humbling experiences” rather than situations like mine, which while are not frequent, are BIG. But that just seems to be my style – when I mess up, I mess up in huge ways. While on a weekend trip to Belfast last November, I mistakenly left my purse under my pillow in our eighteen-bed dorm room at a hostel (the whole set-up of which screams, “DON’T TRUST ANYONE.”) And to make everything so much worse, I’d – again – mistakenly left my pin numbers in my wallet, even clearly denoting “checking” and “savings” on each slip, because that’s how nice of a person I am. That way, whenever that blessed person went scrounging around, found my purse, and then proceeded to hemorrhage my bank accounts, I made it so simple for him! There went about a thousand pounds’ worth of savings, which, of course, were irretrievable because, as my bank put it, I’d basically assisted him in robbing me in every which way.

Fantastic. Boy, do I love those moments, or what! But the blog fiasco of 2009 – as I’ll be referring to this from now on – is so much worse in my opinion. I’ll take losing heaps of money over hurting fifteen colleagues ANY day. A mistake that affects only myself is one thing, one that hurts others is on a whole different level. So all I can do is learn and grow and do my best to never – ever – let this happen again. 

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home, home on the range…

Nothing quite beats waking up on a grey, rainy Saturday morning with four hours of sleep under your belt and plans to go walk around an animal park all day. A huge – and I repeat, huge – part of me was wanting to beg my friend Ellen to cancel the trip to Orana Wildlife Park we’d planned. But alas, a subtle text I sent asking, “Oh no! Rain! Are we still on?” was soon answered that yes, despite the other girls from work all canceling, she was still keen. Here goes nothing, I thought, and dragged myself out of bed.

I soon learned that Orana Park is New Zealand’s only open-range zoo, which, as Michael Graetz defines it in his thesis on the social objectives of zoos, means it “features very large exhibits modeled on the home ranges of large mammals.” Or, as Encyclopedia Britannica so officially describes it, the animals are “kept in more natural conditions in large paddocks,” something that came about in the 1930s beginning with the Whipsnade Park outside London. Basically, we’re not talking about concrete cages here. This is no ordinary zoo. I’d been to something similar about ten years ago on a family vacation to California. After a full day at the San Diego Zoo, we spent yet another day at the San Diego Wildlife Park (those are the kinds of things we do on holiday…). I don’t remember much except for a safari-like tour over the whole complex and feeding a giraffe. It’d been my mom’s idea, but as it usually goes with mothers and their children, it was my siblings and me who actually go the chance to do it.

And so I set out in the rain towards Ellen’s house, where the prospect of visiting Orana Park managed to entice three of her flatmates to crazily forego their Saturday morning sleep-ins as well and join us. After a much-needed stop for petrol and coffee, we arrived at the zoo – and oh was it open-range. Spread out over 80 hectares – roughly 200 acres or so – you’re immediately struck by the spaciousness of it all. It was certainly another world from Willow Bank, where your first impression is of how dense the vegetation is with lush ferns spilling out over all the walkways. Instead of wooden walkways here, though, are wide paths that weave in and out of open fields, hills, trees, and water – you’re certainly not in the suburbs anymore.

Founded in 1976 by a collection of wildlife lovers, the park gets its name from the Maori word for “welcome” or “place of refuge” – how cool is that? And it’s aptly chosen, as well, for the park plays an important role in protecting and breeding many endangered species, including the kiwi, tuatara, and pateke. On a whole, there are 400 animals from over 70 species who call Orana Park home. It’s certainly not something I’d expected to find in Christchurch’s backyard!

First on our list to see were the meerkats, oh-so-reminiscent of little Timon from the Lion King. It was hilarious to watch them scurrying around, ducking into the holes they’d burrowed, and of course, the classic meerkat on look-out duty. But as Ellen lamented, “It just makes me sad they have nothing to look out for.” It was the same with the cheetahs, who despite their majestic look, only lazed about on the grass. “They’re such posers,” Sam says, but Ellen quickly replies, “Well wouldn’t you be too if you were that epic?” Touché. But there was something strange about it all, from the meerkats and cheetahs to the water buffalo and zebras. It was at the enclosure of sprinbok, though, that it hit me: Where are all the predators?

A strange thought indeed, but it’s one thing to see animals laying motionlessly about behind fences and concrete walls – quite another when they’re supposed to be in their “natural” environments.  Nowhere was this truer than with the lions. It was actually quite impossible to differentiate between the male and female lions. And before you think I’m an utter idiot and say, “Uh, the mane?” this was due to the fact that the male lions have all been neutered – and for an understandable reason, as it’s to prevent inbreeding between siblings. But apparently testosterone is what makes the manes grow, so no testosterone = no manes. Nothing has ever broken my heart like the look in the eyes of those mane-less males. Whether or not they even realized it, I felt all loss of dignity and pride for them. We debated this for a while, especially because Ellen’s flatmate Emma is vegan. Go to a zoo with a vegan and you’re guaranteed to have some interesting conversations.

Having discussed the various benefits and disbenefits of the loss of freedom in exchange for the secure life in a zoo, it was time to move on, as Emma asked, “Can we please make our way to the rhinos now?” Sam replies, “I’m just trying to think of any other time in your life you’d say that.” After the rhinos, we headed towards the giraffes for a chance to handfeed them. Thrilling, I know, but we did pay a $25 entrance fee after all, so we fully intended to get our money’s worth. A zoo worker began passing out handfuls of branches to each of us and instructed everyone to “act like a tree” for the best results. If anyone thought she was joking, another worker actually demonstrated by holding the branch out stiffly with one arm while standing straight, still, and tall…just in case there was any doubt on what to do.

And so we made our way through the predator-less place of refuge that is Orana Park, and the whole time I was reminded of an article my dad sent me last month. Featured in the Washington Times, it was called “New Zealand rated most peaceful, U.S. 83” (Jennifer Harper, 9 June 2009). It begins, “Americans pining for a peaceful existence might consider moving to New Zealand, the most peaceful nation on Earth according to the 2009 Global Peace Index released Tuesday by an Australian-based research group…” Now your first thought is probably a lot like mine – how the heck do you even go about measuring something as vague as peace? But the researchers involved in the study argue peace is anything but vague, measuring it against 23 indicators such as “gun sales, the number of homicides, the size of the military, the potential for terrorism, and the number of people in jail.” Who knew?

So apparently I’m living in the most peaceful country in the world, not that you would think it watching the nightly news or anything, but it is reassuring to know that, much like the residents of Orana Park, I can fall asleep at night knowing this is as probably as safe as it gets.

 

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