Instead of going straight east towards Dunedin, we go further south to Invercargill. The city is quite boring, only shops… Most cities and villages are built on the same model: one (or a few) streets with a lot of shops, a few pubs and a fish and chips shop. We like the fact that buildings are no higher than one or two storeys so we don’t feel squashed like in the big American cities. Most houses are called ‘bungalows’: walls covered with weatherboard, windows split in small squares and a corrugated iron roof. We like the style but after always seeing the same houses, we feel it lacks originality. The more modern houses lack charm completely: big blocks of concrete.
We stop just the time to get a Subway, a big sandwich with tuna or meat, cheese and salad. It is the best quality (and quantity) for value we have found so far: 8$NZ while a meal at MacDonald’s costs between 10 and 12$... and we are left starving.
We then start our journey north with the Catlins, a small region in the South-East of the island. The weather seems to fit with the landscape, barren and desolate. The wind rises, menacing clouds gather in the sky. We stay in a funny camp site, at Curio Bay. Plots have literally been carved in big bushes to provide shelter from the wind. We feel a bit isolated especially as the kitchen is so tiny we can’t even sit inside. We end up cooking and eating next to the car. We meet two cyclists, Ben lets out a sigh.
Next morning… the car doesn’t start! The battery is empty (and no, we haven’t let the lights on!). After a bit of a struggle (remember, barren and desolate), we finally find a local who has cables in his car and we can start the car. We hope it won’t happen again, it wouldn’t be much fun to be stuck in this place. We don’t have a mobile phone so we could end up waiting for hours before seeing someone. We start the sightseeing with a 20-km gravel road and go to the furthest point of the island, Slope Point. The wind is so strong we could nearly fly away … next stop, the Antarctic, 4,000 km south! The few trees that manage to survive are frozen in the direction of the wind and the side to the wind is all grey, worn away by the salt. In Curio Bay, a million years old forest has fossilised in the ground. Big trunks have turned into rocks and what look like big flat rocks are actually stumps. On the shore, a penguin is brooding. He is on its own, the rest of the colony has gone fishing. It is a bit sad, some people come very close to take pictures despite the warning at the entrance of the beach. A few meters further, Sylvie jumps, she has nearly stepped onto a sea lion!
We stop for the night in Owaka, a tiny village. As usual, Sylvie stays behind the wheel while Ben enquires about the prices. He comes back looking concerned: ‘I wonder what it means, in the guestbook some people complained of not seeing the ghosts !’. Unfortunately, we are both scared of spiders, the dark and … ghosts! The hostel is actually a former hospital. Luckily, our stay is uneventful and we like the place so much, we pretend we need some rest and stay an extra day.
We leave with two young Germans onboard. We are happy to be able to help someone after all those times when people helped us on the road. We first stop at a beach where two families of sea lions are taking a nap … or having a sleep-in, it’s only 10am! On our way to Nuggets Point, we spot two big silhouettes. It’s a sea lion couple frolicking on the beach. The run very fast on their flippers, a bit like ballerinas (except for the shape!). On the sea, two kayaks are paddling among seals. We then drive north to the Otago peninsula near Dunedin. The road reminds us of Marlborough Sounds, very windy and close to the sea (Sylvie fears falling into the sea!). It takes us an hour to arrive at the campsite! There, surprise, we meet again with Tim and Teresa (the friends of Marion and Matthieu who we met near Milford Sound). They are also going north so we arrange to meet them at a DOC (Department of Conservation) near Moeraki.
On the Otago peninsula, we visit a centre which studies albatross. They are very big birds and we learn they can stay up to three years at sea around the Antarctic without never touching land.
We were looking forward to see Dunedin, Edinburgh in Gaelic but it is raining like hell! Too bad, we don’t see the steepest street in the world (about 30% incline). We have a quick lunch at one of the food courts and drive straight to Moeraki. We cross two small creeks without paying much attention and arrive at the camp site, a big grassy area with a river on one side, and a mountain on the other side. Tim and Teresa are already here. It is still raining a lot so we put the cars boot-to-boot. That way, we can cook and eat in the boot and talk to each other.
It rains all night and while listening to the rain on the roof, Sylvie prays that the site doesn’t get flooded. Big puddles were already forming when we went to bed. None of us think of the river. During the night, we wake up and see a light … someone going to the toilet?
The next day, we get up under the rain. Tim and Ben walk to the river … it’s a catastrophe. The river has swollen so much we can’t cross. What was yesterday a rivulet has turned into a big muddy stream. There is at least 1m50 of water! We are now stuck here until the water goes down. Which looks unlikely looking at all the water that’s pouring down from the sky.
We start by putting the cars on the highest point of the camp site, at the entrance. An hour later, a white and orange van passes us quickly before coming to a halt at the river! Brita, an Austrian girl, took her time to leave and she was wondering why everyone else wasn’t moving! In total, we are ten people and six cars. Everybody is in New Zealand for some time except an Australian couple who has a flight on Wednesday … and it’s Friday already! We also check our food supplies and we decide to have only two meals per day. We get up late anyway. Ben is sad to see his only source of comfort go but Sylvie sticks to her position! We have 10L of water so after two days we put a bucket under the car. We collect 10L in one night! We spend our time talking with Tim and Teresa and playing cards. The second day, Ben and Brita walk up the mountain to call the police. It takes them an hour. The mountain is washed by streams of the water, they have to build bridges with branches. The police is very helpful: ‘If you can’t get out, we can’t get in!’. And also: ‘Leave us you number, we will call you back’. Well, there is no reception near the river…
We are starting to be a bit bored on our island. We read, talk and from time to time we get out to check the river. We put sticks or stones to indicate the level but it’s not going down very fast. In the afternoon, someone yells at us from the other side. At last, some action! He lives next door and has come to check on us. Usually, he says, people have time to get out. But this time, even he was taken by surprise and his car went down the river. In an hour, he sets up a pulley system with a rope across the river and soon food and water are coming our way! Then he puts a piece of wood on the rope and one of us tries this makeshift chair. At least we can get out if we need to. That night, ignoring the sign that says ‘No fire’, we make a big fire, cook marshmallows and dry our clothes.
The next day, Steve comes back with a friend who has a big trailer and suggests we put the cars on it and get out! Tim and Mat, the two American guys, volunteer and are soon safely out. At the same time, Steve is cutting all the branches on the path so the cars don’t get scratched and we don’t get problems with the insurance companies. He is also re-building the bridge on the second river, gone with the water. Last are Rick and Nina, with their big camper-van. The trailer tilts in the second river but the driver accelerates and they are out too! On the other side we find the journalists. They smelled the scoop while listening to the police on the radio. Apparently they were going to send the helicopters! Steve then takes us to meet his wife and have tea. He is a car magician! In two days he can turn any wreck into a new car. In the evening, we celebrate our freedom in a small restaurant in Moeraki.
The next day, we see the boulders, big rocks polished by the waves. At the next village (five houses, a shop and a fish and chips shop), we stop to buy the newspaper. We are on the first page of the Otago Daily Times! Just when we want to leave, the car disagrees again! The battery is empty and we have just driven 10 km. Luckily, there is a garage on the other side of the street, that’s the good side of small villages, everything is nearby! We then get authorization from the rental company and change the battery in Oamaru. At least we won’t be wondering if the car will start or not anymore. We then meet Tim and Mat at the supermarket. We spend the evening together in front of a big plate of noodles and vegetables.