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.