Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

Headline spotted in community paper: “Rogue gardeners harass elderly.” For those of you who thought New Zealand has no real problems.  

Glad to be motorized again, we rambled down SH 6 toward the coastal hamlet of Invercargill. This part of the country, just east of Fiordland and still in the shadow of the great Alps, is composed chiefly of farmlets and ranches. Not the most exciting stuff but pleasingly pastoral. Clumps of yellow-flowered gorse bushes break up the tidy parcels of green farmland, a tableau interrupted by tree-high hedgerows, perfectly trimmed, that hem in the endless fields of grazing sheep.


In Onepuki, on the southern coast, Dr. Seuss-like macrocarpa trees eke out a living against brutal ocean winds. Wizened grey trunks, dead-seeming, with bristly crowns of blackish green: the macrocarpa looks like a dog with its head stuck out a car window. The southerlies, we’re told, make for a hardscrabble life. You can see it in the natives too.
Macrocarpa trees, Catlins
We dashed across the southern coast, marking the stark changes in scenery. We were driving through dry, mountainous Colorado and were suddenly transported to the jungles of Costa Rica. Before we got our bearings we were in County Cork, all green fields and sheep. Blink, and we’d plunged back into Colorado, a high plain of ruddy chaparral and tussocks of brown, desiccated grass.

There are 142 species of fern in this country. Fern! Diversity of plant life, and terrain, is amazing.

“New Zealand really does have it all,” Lisa said.

What New Zealand doesn’t have is any large predators or undomesticated ungulates. This is our only quibble. No deer, moose, elk, buffalo. No grizzly, cougar, eagle, hawk, wolf. No fox or coyote. Wolverines are nowhere to be found. Nor are there unexpected dangers – the thrill of life-and-limb – from the reptiles. No rattlesnake, cottonmouth, alligator, crocodile. No black mamba. No fer-de-lance.  

Only the tahr – chammy, mountain goat – keeps this country from being strictly for the birds, and the sheep ranchers. He of course was another introduced animal, an invasive. But the shaggy, shy hillside dweller has done pretty well for himself.


We passed through Riverton and thought of Wyoming. There is no resemblance. We stayed a couple days in Invercargill, an unremarkable provincial blob, before moving on.

Milford to Invercargill: 280 kilometers (173.9 miles)

Invercargill to Dunedin: 217 km (134.75)

Dunedin to Christchurch: 360 km (223.56)         

Christchurch to Kaikoura: 187 km (116.13)

Kaikoura to Blenheim: 132 km (82) 

We stayed two days in Milford, preparing for what should have been Part Two of our Fiordland Adventure. Unfortunately we were disappointed. The Routeburn Track’s highest point, the Harris Saddle, was closed because of avalanche danger and a complete through-hike was not possible.


We decided to use the time for other activities and caught a shuttle back to Te Anau. The driver, Simon, gave us a detailed history of the serpentine road from Milford – “Great for skateboarding at night,” he said, “when there’s no traffic” – and the tunnel built in the 1950s that spared hikers having to return on the Milford Track the way they’d come.


The 2-kilometer tunnel – still jagged-walled, only recently paved – is subject to occasional closure due to seismic discontent. And avalanches, etc. Vagaries of the regional geology.


All Kiwis seem to know in detail the natural and cultural history of their little island paradise. Simon, his curly grey-flecked hair untamed by an orange bandanna, was no different. Once at a roadside café I asked the lady behind the counter the name of a flower I’d seen in many places along the road. I didn’t really expect her to know but got a very exact reply, almost down to the genus. That encounter has been repeated several times.


Rescuing Melba from the car park in Te Anau, we headed for the southern coast. The Catlins awaited.