The tsunami warning gave me a weird feeling, nobody here seemed worried about it although the university did send round an email informing all field workers to secure equipment and take the necessary precautions for to keep themselves safe. Earthquakes are a fairly routine occurrence here from what I can tell although the Christchurch quake is still very much a topic of conversation, not just because of the damage to property and life but because it shook up expectations as well as a whole heap of bureaucratic systems that just weren’t prepared for it. I like to think that I’m pretty good at empathising and understanding things that I haven’t directly experienced but being here whilst under a warning brings it much closer to home how safe and protected the UK is in every way. I don’t think I really became grateful for this until I began to explore leaving, we take it for granted because we’ve never known how else it could be. What a precious lesson it is to be reminded that I am able to take this safety for granted, it makes me appreciate the life I have all the more.
Another thing that I’ve realised I take for granted on this trip is my independence. I never would have thought that my sense of identity and general well-being was so heavily dependent on my driver’s licence but not having a car or the security of local knowledge has made me realise how free I am at home. Kristen, whose house I’m lodging in took me out this weekend to do some sightseeing and on the way back she offered the car keys to me and let me drive. Over here it’s the car that’s insured and my licence is valid for three months so with that I was good to go. NZ drive on the same side of the road but even so, it’s surprising how conscious it all is to begin with. The signs aren’t set up or coloured where my mind expects them to be so I miss them, the road markings aren’t the same so it takes longer to interpret them, the expectations of other drivers differ from those at home. I found the whole transition interesting and realised it’s almost easier to drive on the opposite side of the road because at least then everything feels wrong! This halfway house is quite confusing. Thankfully (for me and the inhabitants of the car!) I adapted quickly and soon I was having a ball driving happily along the roads. NZ has a reputation among bikers of having amazing roads and I understand why, the bends are all clearly marked with (sensible) maximum speed limits which takes the stress out of judging them and the roads undulate quite pleasantly in a way that makes me miss my bike. The only danger that I can see is that the scenery is so darn stunning that you have to work to keep your eyes on the road. In the evening light it takes on a breath-taking, almost magical quality that can’t fail but touch your core and fill you up with the wonder of being alive.
By the time we stopped at a grocery store I felt quite elated, this was the key ingredient I’ve been missing…a sense of independence! It was the perfect way to round off the day and has paved the way for me hiring a car and doing a mini tour of the Catlins and Fjordland at the end of my stay in Dunedin.
Earlier that day we had decided to head out despite horrendous weather forecasts for the day. The weather was clearly blowing in from the sea as we left so we bundled up and off we went. A quick stop at Anderson’s Bay to pick up Kristen’s partner and we headed north up to Shag point. We drove past tiny holiday homes, (called batches by the southerners and cribs by the northerners, I’m told) which set my craving for a tiny house going in full swing. These idyllic little cottages nestle into the cliff side, overlooking the ocean with a little land around them and to my eye look about as perfect as a home could be.
We parked up at Shag point and walked along the path worn by previous visitors out onto the cliff, we were the only people around as far as I could tell. And the wind blasted raindrops that felt more like icicles into our faces while the grey clouds ominously gathered. As we stared at the rocks which were devoid of shags, instead the seals slowly resolved themselves on the surrounding cliffs, once you could see them more appeared and then more still. They were hardly basking in the sun but they’d taken to the rocks nonetheless, probably it was still warmer there than in the icy Pacific Ocean. They looked at us lazily and a few yawned, whether out of boredom or to show their teeth to us I couldn’t say. A couple were in reach of us had we wanted to but they’re pretty fearsome up close and advice is not to approach them to avoid stress to them and danger to yourself so we kept a respectful distance.
Afterwards we headed further north to Moeraki lighthouse where a colony of endangered yellow-eyed penguins live. These birds seem supremely ill adapted, as the extreme introverts of the animal kingdom. Proximity to other birds stresses them so they up sticks and move their nest higher up the cliff if another bird nests near them. The end result is these tiny little fellows often have many kilometres to walk each day just to get to the sea and back! Fences protected them from us getting too close (if another penguin will stress them you can be sure a human will!) but unfortunately for him, one resourceful individual had managed to get out and was looking rather put out that he couldn’t get back onto penguin-side. Or perhaps he’d come up with a cunning plan to avoid any other birds nesting close to him. Either way, we gave him a wide berth so as not to scare him and managed to spot a baby seal climbing up the hill as we were about to leave. Much excitement! I felt that the dearth of wildlife in prior trips had been more than made up for.
A little way down the road we turned off to see the Moeraki boulders, I had no idea what to expect as Kristin told me they were pretty rare geological formations. Possibly some of the weirdest and most captivating geology I’ve ever seen. These almost perfectly spherical giant marbles of stone stand majestically in the sand of the beach looking for all the world like a giant emptied his marble bag there. The legends the Maoris had created to explained them didn’t seem so far-fetched…I felt that if people hadn’t done so already I would feel compelled to come up with a colourful story to explain their presence that was as mystical as they were, my imagination couldn’t help but be captured by them. I could have stood there with them all day, each one was individual and unique, some had lines of agate running through them which gave them another layer of strangeness, some had appeared to split open like a giant egg (this one had be explored on the inside as well as the outside) and one looked to me like an exact replica of the Star Wars death star. We spent a happy half an hour wandering among them and creating our own stories for each individual one or group. The café at the beach was inexplicably closed much to our disdain, the cold was settling into our bones now and a warm drink and a toilet were becoming necessary. So we headed back to Moeraki village and Fleur’s place, a gem of an eatery in an idyllic spot. If I ever own my own restaurant or café, Fleur’s would be how I would want it to be. This would be best described as weather worn, pastel painted driftwood, fishing village chic. Inside was a huge wood burning farmhouse stove heating the place and a centrepiece brushed metal-sculpted feature that was reminiscent of flames over the bar and serving area. This latter should have been out of place but somehow it wasn’t, it fit perfectly. This was a place where everything was just so and the whole place was entirely charming The eponymous Fleur did not disappoint either, with a warmth and just a touch of eccentricity she exuded the aura of one who has had a rich, interesting and fulfilling life. I found I was immediately at ease and just wanted to sit and chat and find out more of her life, I believe I could have happily listened to her for hours. I found out a little later that Fleur is a bit of a celebrity pioneer of local ingredients and has a number of cook books which have since been added to my Christmas list. I finished the day with a sumptuous chocolate soufflé and a good warm cup of coffee, and dreams of Mickey and I buying a little plot out here and opening a Katie’s, of course not too close to Fleur’s.