The first light of 2018 makes Lake Manapouri steam. It is so restful out here, alone in a glacial valley as old as the country. It’s very ‘postcard New Zealand’ and far from my day-to-day experience. I pack up slowly, resistant to leave my moment. Aside from the waterfall, the only sound is the intermittent scatter of sparrow feet across the fly of the tent, picking up the odd sandfly caught out in the sun. I find their little pronged shadows quite wonderful.
As I leave, I pass only one vehicle on the 44km way out – a lone fisherman and his caravan.
Leaving Borland road, I make a hard right to visit Lake Monowai. A gravel turn is seductive and I surrender to base instinct, planting the boot and spitting stone, fishtailing briefly, correcting like Gran Turismo taught me.
The campsite at Lake Monowai was my New Years Plan C. There are campervans parked everywhere. European ladies come and go from the blowfly ridden toilet, and surly traveller blokes scowl from tents among the trees. The carpark is more of a jetty, with what little is visible of the lake covered in guidance buoys. I decide against the 30 minute ‘viewpoint walk’ – I am sure it is lovely but it won’t top my morning. I head on.
Lake Houroko is my destination. It is New Zealand’s Loch Ness; our deepest lake, 450metres deep, dropping 300 metres below sea level. It has a reputation as a spooky place, and it is well earned.
It is a picturesque lake, with lush forest bordering all sides, ringed by a golden beach. But it is eerie – there is no birdsong.
I sit down at a picnic table for my most hobo lunch yet, baked beans. I feel a vibe and am uncomfortable eating here; the tables say yes but my gut says no. Not just because baked beans are average – the lake is sacred to the local iwi and the lake is creepy; I don’t like eating near it.
As I munch, a Maori family arrive. There’s an old lady, kids and grandchildren. I can tell they’re here for ancestral and educational reasons, and I feel like a dirty intruder. This isn’t really my place – I’m a visitor welcomed because the other option is to feel violated by a presence they can do nothing about. It’s all in my mind though – they’re lovely to me, while I eat my beans.
Soon I am off up the Lake Hauroko lookout. Signs at the lake heavily suggest people only visit the lookout track – the other tramping tracks are far too advanced for road-touring plebs. Reading all this convinces me that the lookout must be a real doddle.
It is not a doddle. It’s a 450 metre climb, and not shy about it. A respectable hard climb, especially in this still heat. I carry on – I had looked at topographic maps so was somewhat prepared – the tourists staggering down the drop look like they were less-so. There’s no indication of the difficulty at the lakeside signs; these Europeans are stumbling down the mountain, jandled and broken. I sympathise with them – if a sign said ‘lookout’ I would make it no matter what too.
As I climb to the top, I hear the sounds of England. There’s a nice call to Grandad at such and such bay and maybe he’s over there and we’ll see you in 3 hours and let’s ring Aunty Whatsface and she’s north of here and that’s not Stewart Island. I take a photo of the three – they don’t offer for me.
It’s a stunning view; views to Stewart Island (never have I seen!) and just bushy wilderness expanse, as far as my eye can see.
I leave the same way, finding the spiritual weight of the place gone, replaced with weariness.
Driving south, I am treated to stunning coastlines.
I arrive in Riverton. It’s a very hobbity European name – the Maori name is Aparima. This is one of the earliest European settlements in New Zealand, settled in the 1830s by whalers. It is a coastal holiday village now – only 200 of its 600 houses permanently occupied. I suspect full capacity today though, judging by the tents on every second lawn.
I drop in to a campsite which had squeezed me in. The site is small, situated in the carpark of an old local hall. The hall is a great camp amenity, if we were in the 70s. But gone are the days of communal hall hanging; now campervans cram and huddle in the carpark – mingling is for the poor. The few suckers in tents are relegated to the garden, a short walk down slopes away from the cars. It’s funny how sometimes the lowest get the best; due to fullness we are shunted into the best gardens on the site.
As for mingling, I fail. A German Te Araroa tramper arrives and sets up beside me, and I can’t be bothered engaging with him. I am sure he’d see my adventure as a turd in comparison, and I am enjoying my book.
The fish and chip shop is heaving – it takes 30 minutes to get my order. Back at the site I feel guilty eating it in relative luxury, next to the Te Araroa walker.
In the morning I head north to the Longwood Range, on gravel paths in search of Cascade Road. I wish to visit Martin’s hut, a tiny cottage built in 1905 to house the chap maintaining a goldmine water race, and one of DOCs oldest and pokiest huts. It’s a short walk off a 4×4 track. I pass the broken stump of the roadsign and think of unwelcoming hunters – not long ago, one was killed in Longwood Forest. I wind the Jazz along the route, which gets tighter and tighter; eventually so tight I cannot gently swerve around the potholes, just judder straight into them. They get bigger and bigger, and my interest in the endeavour shrinks with the path. I back out and turn around, defeated and frustrated. I haven’t the time to walk the road on foot.
I drive on to Invercargill, the last city of the South. It has a poor reputation (for inbreeding among other things) – a dull as dish backwater, and though I keep an open mind, my first impressions are unfavourable. Block after block of large stores, split by traffic lights – an endless line of service stores – a town with no heart.
Fortunately the soulless sprawl of pure modern capitalism is only on the outskirts. Closer to the historic heart of Invercargill there is beauty in public works – I pull over to Queens Park, a big landscaped thing faithfully replicating the grand gardens of Britain.
The Southland Museum is close by. I expect a pokey regional thing but am blown away – I spend hours. There’s a huge section on the sub-antarctic islands; places whose tales I find endlessly fascinating. One of my favourite books revolves around the journeys of two separate shipwrecks on the Auckland Islands (link). I read more about those events, and every short-lived human escapade in the islands over the last 200 years. On Enderby Island, DOC workers arrived to discover heritage French rabbit breeds – long lost to civilisation, but keeping themselves for hundreds of years. The islands became a time capsule for the invasive creatures we dropped off.
Other items of interest include functional Maori craft – hand-drills for hole boring and fire starting, and elaborate bird catching methods. Iwi in the South had to be migratory and nomadic; the traditional tools they used to make it easier are wonderful to learn about. Ingenious – the creative and clever things done with flax are without number. It is nice to see some ‘boring stuff’ kept too; not just the most spectacular carving.
Chiaroni, a local artist, displays an exhibition on Descendants, Ka Uri. A quote from her caught my imagination, lost as I am. I reproduce it here without permission but I don’t think she’ll mind.
To you, the new generation, our children. You are unique. You are born for this time and this place in which you exist. Your ancestors live within in your very being. Acknowledge, celebrate, and live all of your cultures and customs for they are rich in wisdom. Not one is better than the other. Each one is of significance to your story. They give us hope when all seems hopeless, they give us warmth and belonging when we lose our way. You are one of a kind, born of love. You are bound to your eternal being like the umbilical cord that is cut and knotted to ensure life.
Heading on, steeples and domes surrounded by decay tell of Invercargill’s grander years. Victorian villas still stand, but with windows shuttered with ply; the death of the regions saddens me. I visit one Catholic Basilica; a bunch of what can only be considered scumbags loiter about the porch next door.
I regain State Highway 1 to drive its final length to Bluff, the end of mainland New Zealand.
The town entrance is sided by the collapsing bulk of one of our last freezing works. Beyond, a great rusty sign proudly proclaims ‘BLUFF’. It’s a town battered by the southern oceans, and it shows in every beaten down building. The paint peels.
Folks come to Bluff to get to Stewart Island, or go to Stirling Point. I drive to Stirling Point, recognise the tourist hordes, enjoy the turning circle and head up to the Bluff Hill Lookout instead. A first-gear slog up the hill is rewarded with stunning views all around. To the north is the Tiwai Point smelter, and to the south is Stewart Island – it’s so clear I can see all I ever could.
I make a sandwich and sit. I have wanted to explore Southland for years, and now here I am, at its terminus. This time last year the Jazz and I was at our northernmost tip; now here I am at our southernmost. Good adventures both – I should probably get the car serviced.