The sweet peas on the back fence have been blown over by an autumn gale. We tie them back in place then set out in the rain heading south from Dunedin. Bert’s bolt upright on his sheepskin on the motor between us and he warms me as he leans in close.
As we head out on the Taieri plain the grass is an intense green for this time of year, the result of a rainy summer. The paddocks are scattered with newly shorn sheep. On the radio is the ongoing saga of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and possible nuclear disaster. Willows with the first autumn colours catch our eye.
Near Milburn John tells me about a friend of his who lived here years ago, a remittance man from Britain who used to wash his clothes in the creek. We see the Otago Corrections Facility (Milton Hilton) then a circus heading in the opposite direction. An avenue of rowans with pink berries leads us out of town.
Little deer stand politely in their paddock then further along red stags with huge antlers have that impatient male look. Ducks fly about in their characteristic panic stricken style, wings flapping frantically as if they’re struggling to stay airborne. A pair of paradise ducks stand in a paddock, spur winged plovers are on the move and harriers are cruising. There’s so much for us townies to take in.
Just south of Clinton, remnants of native bush have a variety of shape and form, so different from the orderly patches of pine forest. A large paddock running alongside the road is dotted with large specimen trees, a rare sight in New Zealand.
Cumbersome green plastic covered parcels of fast food for stock line the edges of paddocks. It’s baleage, similar to hay but a kind of silage, grass baled when still moist, high quality food for hungry animals in the winter. A double row of them in perfect alignment runs down a hillside like the teeth of a zipper.
We love the huge old macrocarpas which have been a feature of New Zealand farms for over a century. Along with gums, pines and hawthorn hedges they provide shelter for the stock which live outside all year. The stock in this area are mainly Friesian cows with obscenely large udders plus sheep and deer.
A row of a dozen dark shaggy wild pig skins hangs on a fence.
We stop in Gore to visit the popular Salvation Army charity shop. I haven’t brought enough warm clothes and I’m pleased to find a big fleece vest with a Mossburn Pirates logo (John suggests it could be Mossburn Pilates), and a pure mohair scarf made in Scotland. The Eastern Southland Gallery (the Goregennheim) has an unlikely collection of large stunning carvings from West Africa and paintings by Ralph Hotere. It’s a beautiful red brick building built in 1909, originally a Carnegie library. Since the Christchurch earthquake, old brick and masonry buildings tend to bring on a slight sense of unease.
Just south of Mataura we head west and see our first paddock of green feed (brassica which the stock graze) dotted with the familiar green bags. New Zealand farmers are utilitarian above all else. Then a 200 metre long white plastic sausage full of baleage hugs a fence along the roadside.
We’re astonished to discover the Glencoe Memorial, “In memory of the early settlers of this Glencoe of which many were McDonalds”, and in memory of those massacred at Glencoe in Scotland in 1692. Long memories the Scots.
I’m still not warm enough and in Winton we check out the Sally Army. I find a thick navy blue woollen jumper made by a classic country label for ten dollars. I hardly take it off for the next three days.
We stop for the night in Otautau in deepest Southland. The Southland District Council helpfully provides ten campsites where freedom campers can stay for free. We’ve printed them off their website. The Alex McKenzie arboretum is a welcome mix of grass, stream and overgrown specimen conifers. We go for a walk, have some of our monster bacon and egg pie for dinner, then go to sleep listening to the squawking of birds and what sounds like stags roaring.
In the morning a coal train goes past. We take the road north towards Nightcaps, and drive under a massive transmission line that can only be the line from Manapouri power station to the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter. The houses are mansions and the milking sheds are better than a lot of houses in town. This is nothing like the farming of our childhoods.
Southland with its high rainfall is well suited to dairy farming but I read later that the farmers here have a very poor record when it comes to polluting waterways, and have made little effort to improve things.
A drive is lined with antlers attached to the fences on each side. They must be from wild deer.
In Nightcaps we brew up a coffee on the picnic table in the main street. The unforgettable old building with the sign “D Sinclair Builders Joiners Funeral Directors” is for sale. We visit the tiny perfect Miner’s Cottage from 1905. No matter how many children were crammed in there it must have been such luxury compared with a tent. We drive to the entrance to the coal mine which is bustling with activity. The local paper has a story on a protest group’s concerns about the health effects of air and water pollution from the mine.
The paper also gives the roar schedule: wapiti do it in March and red deer in April.
Ohai has a sign saying “No Blasting Today” and many of the buildings are boarded up with corrugated iron which is a sad sight. The people who live there have massive firewood piles. Perhaps the coal mine isn’t as generous with coal for the workers as it was in the past.
The farms are pristine, beautiful valleys and flats of cattle and sheep, with saplings on the fences for the local hunt club. Clifden has a lime works, a 300 metre cave and a glorious suspension bridge built in 1899. An older woman sits in a camper van reading a book, with a clothesline full of washing flapping in the breeze.
The Tuatapere Service Station advertises fishing gear and inside we discover rifles, fishing rods, gas canisters, outdoor clothing, everything a hunter might need. I buy a life size decoy of a mallard duck for my granddaughter for $5.
After that it’s flat to the coast where the wind blasted macrocarpas seem to be barely hanging on to the land.
At Monkey Island we join Rowdy’s Nest, Time to Play, Gunna, Kea Aura and Neva Home parked in a narrow strip beside the beach. Are these the Grey Nomads we’ve heard about? A laid back vibe surrounds the ten or more converted buses, camper vans and caravans and a small cat runs out to greet us. It even charms Bert who puts aside his intense animosity to cats and has a smooch. One of the campers tries to get us to adopt it, then decides that she’ll take it home.
It’s low tide and people are searching for paua while a couple of locals are riding their horses on the hard sand. Monkey Island is a tiny hill known to Maori as the anchor stone of the Takitimu canoe. It’s only accessible when the tide is out. Apparently Maori used to spot whales from the top. The thought of venturing into this sea in a canoe is not appealing, even on a day as calm as this.
Heavy rain pounds the roof of the van overnight and next morning the colours are intense as we drive up the road to the turn off to Cosy Nook. The sea is a shiny blue, the surf the cleanest white, the rocks dark, and the grass, brassica crop, bush covered hill and stunted macrocarpas a living colour chart of greens. Here even the long black flower stalks on the flax hedges lean inland away from the wind.
Cosy Nook is a tiny cove way up the cuteness scale. It has a fishing boat, a few tiny cottages and a long drop toilet now, but it’s been inhabited for centuries, first by Maori who had a large settlement here. A homesick Scot named it after his village back home.
It’s flat with wide flax hedges, paddocks of deer and bush as we travel round the coast to Colac Bay a glorious stretch of beach renowned for its surf. The kids must love catching the school bus here in their bus shelter painted with the characters from the Simpsons and South Park.
There’s no-one around today. We get an idea of the people who live here from their bus shelters, the odd football goal in a paddock, the flower gardens full of dahlias, and most of all from the Southland District Council’s pragmatic public rubbish bins – a large recycled plastic drum with the top cut out, secured to a post with a fat nail.
At Riverton an impressive rowing four is returning from the sea into the harbour. The day is perfect: no wind, full sun, high tide. The houses along the sea front have huge decks and it looks like it might be a popular retirement spot. From 1876 this place had a timeball which gave the people Greenwich mean time.
We leave town past the immaculate racecourse which even has a steeplechase course. Farming from here to Invercargill is on an industrial scale with vast silage pits and dairy herds. The preferred hedges are macrocarpa closely clipped on each side and geometric in style, functional yet surprisingly attractive.
In Invercargill we go in search of charity shops and oysters. At the Barnes Oysters shop we can buy a dozen A grade oysters for $25 or two dozen B Grade ones for $24. The only catch is that since it’s the lunch hour and the openers have had a break, they’ve run out of the B grade ones. It’s the delayed gratification marshmallow exercise for adults: half a dozen A grade oysters now, or a dozen B grade ones in an hour’s time. We hold on till two when we buy our two dozen and eat them on fresh bread rolls with butter, lemon juice and a cup of tea. One of those memorable feasts. I notice the Invercargill rubbish bins are 44 gallon oil drums!
At a Sally Army charity shop John buys a small Swandri jacket in mint condition for $10 to give to one of the family. They offer us a loyalty card. They could be our sponsor for this trip! Going from one extreme to the other we then visit H & J Smith the well stocked department store and find a couple of label garments for half price.
We leave town via Branxholme where they grow the beautiful potatoes we buy in Dunedin, due north back to Winton. Then we retrace our steps on the Mataura road looking for the turnoff to Dunsdale, another freedom camping area. After travelling a reasonable distance and still no sign (it’s so tiny it’s not on our road atlas), we stop at a farm house where they give perfect directions. We turn off the main road onto gravel and drive in through pine forest. At a fork in the road we take the obvious more travelled route and arrive at a flat grassy area of about eight acres surrounded by native forest. There are a couple of house buses here and there, plus a few tents and a yurt. We find a spot above the river a good distance from everyone else and go for a short walk to see the small waterfall. Bert is in heaven with all the animal scents. Bellbirds, grey warblers and wood pigeons make it a bush paradise for us as well.
We’re in the Hokonui Hills, home to whiskey stills from the late 1800s until the late 1900s. A still at Dunsdale was the centre of a famous trial in 1932. I boil a pot of thickly sliced potatoes then fry them with a couple of big slices of the longlife bacon and egg pie. One or two vehicles come and go later, and the moon is nearly full.
As we drive out next morning utilities full of forestry workers are heading up the road and a grader pulls over for us. Bert leans into me as we round the corners like he’s on a motorbike.
The Gore H & J Smith has more bargains for us and around the corner I buy delicious minted lamb pies which we eat for morning tea with a brew of coffee.
We take the road north east towards Tapanui and pass headers at work on paddocks of grain. As we climb through beautiful sheep country the dark Blue Mountains come into view to the east. Blue Mountain Nurseries has a wonderful display of trees and plants and we come away with three fabulous blue hydrangeas (Renate Steiniger, Mathilda Gutges and Nightingale) plus advice on keeping the flowers blue (aluminium sulphate once a month during flowering).
At Lawrence they’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in nearby Gabriel’s Gully. The town is spruced up and immaculate with designer rubbish bins and busloads of people arriving.
Back home the New Dawn rose is having another flowering, the raspberries are ready to pick again and the bellbirds have returned after a long summer absence.
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