To get to Slope Point there was a pathway across a few gently undulating fields and paddocks and through a couple of gateways. It was very windy but not quite as cold as I expected when I made it to the point itself. So, why was I here? Slope Point is the most southerly place you can go on New Zealand’s South Island. For some reason most people think it is Bluff, near Invercargill that holds that honour, but it is not the case. There is a signpost at Bluff pointing to lots of the major places in the world giving the distance to them, similar to the one I had seen at Cape Foulwind, but it should really be here on this desolate promontory in the Catlins. Having said that, there was a signpost at Slope Point as well, a much more modest one indicating the latitude and longitude of the point and its distance from both the South Pole and the equator, 4803km and 5140km respectively, and it was erected, rather bizarrely, by the AA.
On the horizon to my right, as I stood battling the wind and looking out to sea, I could just make out what I took to be Stewart Island, and I really hope that it was. So many of the people I had met on my travels who had been there had told me how wonderful a place it was and that it was an essential part of any journey through this country. I can’t dispute that and I am sure they were right, but it was not on my list of things to do and places to see, so it would have to wait for another time. The climate over there would suggest a visit in high summer would be best and I had seen the back of that a few weeks before.
I stood on Slope Point and thought back just fifteen days to when I was walking on Farewell Spit in gorgeous sunshine wearing those shorts and with my sandals in my hand. I felt that I had come a long way in those two weeks, and not just geographically. I had crammed a lot in and done it on my own terms. It is true that if I had just wanted to travel from one end of the island to the other in the shortest possible time I could probably have driven it in a couple of tiring days rather than weeks but I believed that I had come of age as a seasoned traveller in that time and had really come to terms with what I was doing. I had met more wildlife and had some wonderful experiences, both personal and general and was now coasting, no pun intended, towards some sort of finish line. While I didn’t want my journey to end, though I knew it must, I felt that I had achieved a degree of fulfilment within it.
Whether I was moving on to a new chapter or just another page I wasn’t sure, but standing on this rocky point of land knowing I could go no further south when my previous two weeks had been a steady progression in that direction felt like a pivotal moment for me. I reflected on this as I walked back to the dirty car I had left parked up with two weeks worth of travelling splattered all over it. After the solemn and introspective moments at Slope Point I felt that I needed a bit of a boost somehow. That was another tension builder, just thought I’d mention it.
I drove back the way I had come and managed to avoid as many potholes as possible while I was doing it. My next port of call was not far away, Curio Bay. Curio Bay boasted a world class Petrified Forest just laid out on the beach. The gently sloping flat rocks were covered with easily discernable fallen trees, tree stumps and roots, all millions of years old and as hard as, well, rock. Some of the petrified wood looked recent and recognisable and it was a wonder to me that the public were at liberty to just roam all over this rare and, seemingly, fragile link with the past. I suppose we are trusted to be honest and not remove anything and to maintain what we saw. I also suspected that the ocean would do more damage than we ever could but I would hate to see this kind of site disappear through neglect and wanton destruction. I was not alone on this particular beach, nor had I expected to be, those cars and camper vans in the parking area must have had occupants when they arrived. A few people were milling around the rocks further along the beach so I decided to make my way over in that direction, this was Curio Bay, after all.
As I got close to where everyone else seemed to be I noticed that there were a few long lenses out on some of their cameras and I became quite intrigued by this. I looked in the direction that these fat black fingers were pointing and saw what they were trained on. There on a narrow shelf of grass between the rocks and the bushy bank stood a Yellow-eyed penguin happily preening, seemingly oblivious to the spectacle it was making of itself. I have to say that every one of the eight or ten of us there, including a couple of young children, was very well behaved and extremely respectful. No-one tried to get nearer than about ten metres and there was no scuffling, paparazzi style, for the best shot. It was just the moment and encounter that I needed to pick myself up and refocus on what I was here for. This little penguin, though not that little, as I have mentioned before, seemed to accept that it was not in any immediate danger or under threat from those politely observing it and carried on poking through its feathers with its beak. It had no conception of the fillip it had given me or the delight I was feeling at being able to watch it at fairly close quarters. It was just doing what penguins do, being incredibly charming.
I took a few photographs, though they didn’t do either the bird or the moment justice, and then drifted away. I was happy not to overdo things, unless I missed the penguin going indoors for its top hat and cane and coming back out for its big show-stopping finale with a group of gulls as a chorus, I think that was right. I love to see nature and to have nature happening around me but I feel awkward and intrusive if I stand and stare for too long. It had been a marvellous moment, though, and one I shall remember for as long as I am able to.
As I climbed back up the wooden steps off the beach I looked across and could still see this unique creature carrying on its daily life in the media spotlight and, sort of, wished everyone else would just leave it alone and walk away as I had done, but I had stood there enthralled only moments before so didn’t have too much moral high ground on which to stand. That high ground was getting lower by the minute when it occurred to me where I was going to pitch up next. Just down the road from Curio Bay was Porpoise Bay and the name itself may hold a bit of a clue as to what some visitors are lucky enough to see there.
Just to break the tension, I have to say that I was indeed one of the lucky ones. The tide was now just on the way in and, as I stood on the sandy beach I could see a few black shapes appearing and disappearing about twenty metres out into the water of the bay. They would then reappear a little way ahead, and be gone again almost instantly. Just once one individual dolphin came out of the water far enough for me to see its distinctive black and white colouring. These were Hector’s dolphins, and I counted six of them swimming together in a pod and playing in the breaking waves. Hector’s dolphins are the smallest there are, little more than a metre long, and they also happen to be one of the rarest. They only live in the coastal waters around New Zealand’s South Island, and then in only a few very special places, and I was in one of those places. The local dolphin population is tiny and I felt very privileged and incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to be where I was seeing what I was seeing. I had never seen a dolphin in the wild before, anywhere, and here I was witnessing some of the world’s rarest going about their normal routine unmolested or hindered and with no-one else on the beach but me.
Two very special encounters with two unique creatures had come my way in the matter of a few minutes, two lifelong ambitions had been realised and I find it difficult to express just how awe inspiring it all felt. Some people would probably just tick them off, mentally or otherwise and move on, but this day and what I had seen meant far more to me than that. My day had been made twice over and in two different ways, and that doesn’t happen often, at least not to me. It was going to take something very remarkable to top all that.
Down to earth again, on the way back to Owaka, I called in at the Matai Falls near the little settlement of Maclennan. The pathway to the falls was quite slippery but easy enough. After Wainui Falls and the adventure just getting to them, this felt a much smaller and tamer experience. Don’t get me wrong, the falls were delightful and I could hear the rumble quite a long way off. The added bonus with this particular waterfall was that it was not alone; it had some company just a few metres upstream. A little path beside the falls led up to the Horseshoe Falls which tumbled over a cliff edge seemingly deep within the bush. The combination of the two made for an enchanting few minutes as I watched and was mesmerised by my surroundings once more.
New Zealand really does seem to have it all. There can’t be many places in the world where one person could experience the variety and quality of natural wonders and beauty that I had done over the course of just a few short hours. From the moment I had stepped out of the car at Florence Hill until I got back into it at Matai Falls I had been on an emotional and enthralling journey. Introspection and delight, personal reflection and natural wonder had been with me all day. I kept asking myself where it would all end and how I could top it. The answer came a couple of hours later when, with the hostel kitchen to myself, I cooked unquestionably the worst meal I have had in all my time in New Zealand, and I just didn’t care one bit.