There is something about railway journeys, something magical and when that journey involves spectacular scenery on the Taieri Gorge Railway it only intensifies that feeling. At one point after crossing a large metallic curved viaduct the train grinds to a halt and we all get off and drink in the views across the valley; it is amazing; even the kids are impressed. An American tourist loudly exhorts to everyone it’s not the Rockies, which, he is right, it is not, but it is reassuring to know we will not be getting attacked by bears, and be able to get back to our campsite tonight!
Tired after dinner, we head out to Sandfly Beach. We won’t have time in the morning and reluctantly the parents enthuse the kids along. We meet Sea Lions and blue penguins on an almost deserted stretch of sand. In the morning we are all a little sad to be leaving Dunedin, we have had a fantastic time. It is now a significant town (New Zealanders would call it a city, but with a population of 125,000, I’m not sure it is), filled with only great memories, albatrosses, penguins, Sea Lions, magnificent train journeys and a gothic Scottish train station, chocolate… and a welcoming S&M sports arena (past tense now)!
We lunch overlooking Owaka and the sea. Then walk up to the beautiful McLean Falls.
There are days that stay in the mind, have a glowing after burn; that you return to, warm you, make you smile. This day is such a day. I oft return here and it does warm me. Aptly it was a warm day and we promised the kids ice-creams at the next stop, so we alighted at a hamlet outside Waikawa – ‘a local shop, for local people,’like a scene from the TV comedy series, League of Gentlemen. I had pulled over as it promised tourist information, which transpired to be a rack of leaflets like you get in a seaside guesthouse, the shop was deserted, and the kids excitedly riffled through the chest freezer looking for sweet frozen produce in bright packaging. The female shopkeeper appeared, more League of Gentlemen. Gracious and eager to offer any assistance. I explain our need for accommodation for the night and she disappears in the back and returns with a set of keys. There is a free bach five miles down the coast in Curio Bay, why don’t you have a look at it, might suit you just fine for a night or two.” A Bach, pronounced batch is a holiday home – probably from the Welch for small – probably? Then she handed me the keys informing me how to get there and the fact I couldn’t miss it. I’m confused at the handing over of the keys and the high level of trust – I come from a busy city and handing over your keys to a complete stranger automatically flashes a red light an insurance head office and alerts the self-elected leader of the Neighbourhood Watch to get out of bed, get their mobile, a flash-light and a fully-charged Tazer.
“If you don’t come back in the next hour, I’ll assume you are staying and you can drop the keys off when you leave, pay then.” She said pay then, like that was another flexible option.
I go and explain the situation to the wife; that has decided to stretch her legs outside, she is confused, the boy backs me up. So we are up the road, until we spot the bach behind the dunes of the bay. We are all excited, it is a full house, the kids eagerly run around the house opening doors, cupboards, washing machines, drawers, etc. It has obviously belonged to an elderly couple that have now vacated it, but this adds to the charm. There are three bedrooms, so this is another added bonus.
After the unloading of the enema, we walk over the dunes to the bay, a big Sea Lion is adorning the highest dune and we creep by him onto the sand, in the distance a group of people are surfing and behind the breakwater are Hector’s Dolphins breaking the briny. The small dolphins, that only grows 1.5m is also the world’s rarest dolphin species – who doesn’t like to see a dolphin, add to this the rarity factor, and you are forced to get excited, it’s obligatory.
I tell the family unit that we have to now go and see the Petrified Forest around the headland, so we navigate back around the laconic Sea Lion and jump in the people carrier. There are a total of eight people at the attraction if you include us and the Ranger that is dressed like Edward Norton in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, he is adorning the most bushular ginger beard I have ever seen, it’s like a copper mine on Mars, or is the beard adorning him? I explain as much as I know to the children, knowing to summarise the key facts upfront and then moving onto the more esoteric if I can hold their attention long enough. It’s bloody amazing, ok I know not everyone gets animated by a forest that started fossilising next to a sea 180 million years ago, that is so well preserved you have to feel it as it could easily pass as living dark ebony type wood, it is cold to the touch. We are all amazed, even the wife – and she likes mountains mainly. The kids trail blaze off to try and find something exciting to show me. I take the opportunity to go and chat with the man-sized Boy Scout. As I approach him I spot a Yellow Eyed Penguin (the world’s rarest penguin) on mud cliff behind him.
“Hi, you do know there’s a Yellow Eyed Penguin on the cliff behind you?”
Without moving his head, as not to alert the other distant six people on the rock shore, he replies, his mouth is in there somewhere, as his copper facial hair moves slightly, like an auburn talking Christmas tree.
“I know. I’m trying to keep people away from them!”
How he is achieving this baffles me, he appears to holds the custodianship and the greatest source of information about this unique location, one of only two pristine coastal petrified forests in the world (the other is in Argentina), if anything he is attracting people nearer the penguins, due to his perceived knowledge and his incongruous fancy dress outfit. We move on from penguins to fossilised plants. I offer up that if this was anywhere populous in the world it would be inundated with visitors.
“Oh, this is very popular – we had 50,000 visitors last year!”
He seems very proud of the ‘high’ number of attractants; I don’t want to burst his bubble. I can’t help thinking someone’s made him dress like that for a bet. I point out several other penguins before we leave.
The kids go out for a last forage on the beach before the night closes in, while we cook, the girl is worried the Sea Lion might eat her, it has moved on and her brother is there to protect her. We play cards for quite a while, three of us want to stay another night, but the wife wisely says we should move on as we have seen everything of note in the area, and there will be more bounteous beauty elsewhere – it is a tactful way of saying, she has seen the rare dolphins, yellow mascaraed penguins and enough coastal fossilised plants – thank you! We know she is right, so reluctantly we agree. In the morning we return the keys back to Cecelia ‘a local key, but not just for local people,’ along with the $95NZ for our stay. Glimpse Hector’s Dolphins in the bay for the last time, go back to the Petrified Forest to take a few photos, the Boy Scout has gone, numbers have dropped to below eight.
It is a day that stays with me, even though there is not a great deal chronicled in my journal. It was a day when we were all free, nothing to do, and all day to do it, the sea and the light crash and suck of waves in the background, the wind in the dunes, with the bonus of rare animals and even rarer natural phenomena. It was a day when we were in equilibrium, as a family, and with the planet; all healthy, happy, jobs and school another lifetime away, it was a day, not just a day, that even now makes me smile inwards and warms me, a hug from an invisible friend from the past. A memory that welds lovers, family, childhoods, and parenthoods together closer… and of course it will erode like the Petrified Forest of Curio Bay, but it will take a long, long, time to do so.
Next time: Pissing on Lime Trees.
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