I’m really not feeling the Catlins.

April 5, 2011 Comments Off on I’m really not feeling the Catlins.

404 km

Yeah, yeah, okay, New Zealand’s fantastic. But just this once I have to be a wet blanket and tell everyone to avoid the Catlins. The guidebook just raved about them, and, you know, when Lonely Planet raves about something you’d better check it out. So we detoured down to the very southern coast to see these famous Catlins.

Here’s the problem: the guidebook and New Zealand conspire to make your way as difficult as possible. The guidebook doesn’t give nearly enough detail and the roads are very poorly signed. We made it down to Invercargill all right, but past the city the book tries to make you take some kind of crazy detour before you get to the Southern Scenic Route, and we promptly found ourselves lost in farmland. The atlas we’d bought didn’t go into enough detail for us to find our way around, and by the time we made it to the Waipapa Lighthouse, we were already stressed and I was in a bad mood.

There were sea lions on the beach but the excitement of seeing them was quenched by the sudden driving rain that picked up minutes after we got out of the car. It was extremely cold. The only thing we had time to see was a sign telling about the worst civilian shipwreck in NZ history, where a ship hit a reef quite close to shore and sat for twelve hours (“Onlookers watched helplessly as conditions slowly worsened”) before finally sinking, killing 131. The whole thing struck me as funny. The reef was so close, and even with the weather being very not nice at the time, it was probably a pretty easy walk (wade) from shore. Imagining worried people helplessly watching the ship as conditions slowly worsened was comical, especially the sinking part. It was so shallow by the reef! Even at high tide, a ship big enough to carry 131 people could not possibly have fit under the water. I’m sure I’m wrong; I’m sure the NZ coast guard or whoever took care of it was well-qualified to assess the situation, and they probably didn’t lie about so many deaths, but still. Anyway, that was all we got a chance to take in before the rain and whipping wind forced us to take shelter in the car. We decided to have lunch in the car instead of walking to the lighthouse, and afterwards we drove away without seeing it.

That stop was a microcosm of the whole day: it was always cold and windy and rainy, and we usually ended up leaving without having seen anything, unless we had missed the stop altogether. At one point the book sent us down a horrible gravel road with nothing to see but sheep. There was no visible point to the detour, except maybe to make us go slower? The book would say something like, “To see this amazing waterfall, take the turnoff a couple kilometers after Papatowai,” and I, being a clever and perceptive girl, began looking for it before Papatowai, because we were going the opposite way from the guidebook, and suddenly we’d be in Papatowai and had missed the stop. It must have been very poorly signed for me to have missed it: I wasn’t even driving, there was nothing else to look at besides trees and hills, and besides, I’m good at that kind of thing. But if that’s the case then the guidebook should warn you that it’s very poorly signed. Argh. In Papatowai, the guidebook mentioned a weird little museum and said it would be worth a trip to the Catlins just to visit it. But by then I was in a fight with the guidebook, and we decided to spite it by skipping the fantastic museum, just to teach it a lesson. Ha.

We did make it to Porpoise Bay, where apparently you can see dolphins swimming and playing on days when the rain isn’t trying to take your face off, and we clambered around on the rocks and teased the waves for a while. It was cold cold cold, and I got to put my hand in the Southern Ocean! And we were playing out near the surf zone, and a BIIIIG wave came in and got our legs wet. That was moderately fun, but I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned that it was COLD, so we got back in the car and kept going.

It was near the end of our trip that we did something worth doing: Nugget Point. There’s a lighthouse there, but before we got there we saw signs for a yellow-eyed penguin hide. Supposedly they’re very rare and extremely easily-scarred-by-humans birds, so you have to huddle in this hide and watch for them coming back to land around two hours before dusk. It was about the right time of day, but we saw no penguins. Granted, we were impatient and on a schedule (in that we wanted to make Dunedin before dark), and might have seen something if those things weren’t true, but…I really wanted to see penguins, and we saw zero. Another strike against the Catlins. But the lighthouse was cool: to get to it, you had to take a path where the land dropped away from either side, leaving the trail a kind of knife’s edge high above the water. When you got to the lighthouse at the end, there were great craggy blocks sitting in the ocean a couple hundred feet down, and they were covered in sea lions, playing, fighting, swimming, yelling, hanging out. You couldn’t see them very well without binoculars, but I hung over the railing watching them until Simon pulled me away. I could have sat for hours, but we were on a timetable.

We made it to Dunedin (pronounced dun-EE-din) just after dark, and ended up with a three-bedroom apartment at a downtown hotel, which was sort of creepy and too big. The Indian restaurant where we ate was quite bad, and afterwards we discussed in tones of wonder how even when Indian food is straight-up bad, it’s still pretty good. On the way home from dinner we bought some wine, and listening to Simon and the cashier chat was one of the best things about my day.

CASHIER (nodding to nearby newspaper): There’s an article in there about someone who got the government to award them $6,000 for emotional damage from being thrown from a horse.

SIMON: Oh, really? You know, we were just in a helicopter the other day, and her door blew open!

CASHIER: …Oh, really?

SIMON: We should have sued for emotional damage! We might have $6,000 by now.

CASHIER: You can’t actually sue in New Zealand unless it’s a criminal case.


I listened in amazement, not knowing whether to laugh or ask what was going on. Had Simon misheard “horse” as “helicopter”? If so, why? Had I misheard her? It was all very confusing, but quite funny, and when we left the liquor store I told Simon about it and he was aghast, which set me off, and I laughed hysterically the whole walk home.


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