When I met up with Seagull on a sunny spring day in Wanaka, he looked more like a lost albatross than a spunky gull.
He was an old friend—a farmer’s son and a practical kind of guy who once, working on track maintenance in Fiordland during the roar, lured a stag to him by imitating its grunts with a chainsaw. “Seagull” was a boarding-school nickname, bestowed on account of a ravenous appetite that led him to raid his schoolmates’ lunchboxes.
Right now Seagull was seriously down on his luck. In quick succession he had been through a marriage break-up, a heart attack (at 35) and an unhealthy reliance on anti-depressants. He was re-examining the hand life had dealt him and not finding too many trump cards.
We made a good pair, for I was also bogged down, despairing not so much of the cards as of the game itself. The daily news—incessant warmongering accompanied by the obligatory self-righteous rhetoric—was getting to me like too much gloomy weather.
I began to hatch an escape plan. Time out in a quiet place would do Seagull and me a world of good, I figured. It would need to be an “out of range” kind of place, where we could both unplug and let our minds stop spinning, regain our sense of balance, and meet a few people whose feet were anchored more firmly to the ground than our own.
“What say we go for a few days to the Catlins?” I suggested.
“Catlins!” Seagull’s face lit up at the sound of the name. It was where he had grown up, where his grandfather had logged and his family once farmed.
His bags were still packed from his latest misadventure—a ski-touring expedition in the Southern Alps which had ended when he and his companion had been caught in an avalanche. We stocked up on food and within hours were driving eastward, suddenly free of our cares, the road ahead a promise of change.
That night we saw a sea lion and poked for paua at low tide. We camped in a grove of wind-lashed fuchsia. It was my first taste of the forgotten coast.
The area known as the Catlins—the South Island’s southernmost stretch of coastline and its hinterland—lies between the lower reaches of the Clutha and Mataura Rivers, but I like to think of it as the coast between two lighthouses, at Nugget Point and Waipapa Point—perhaps because they signify the precarious nature of human existence in this part of the country. They stand as pillars on land’s end, concrete bulwarks against the Roaring Forties, the wind that makes the crowns of trees grow sideways, like plumes of smoke.
Topographically, the northern Catlins looks like a hand, its fingers pointing south-east at the ocean. The palm is the rugged interior, much of it reserved as the Catlins Forest Park, each finger a hilly ridge, each tip a sea-cliff, each gap between the fingers a river valley widening into an estuary.
The southern part, between Chaslands Mistake, or Makati, and Waipapa Point, is geologically more jumbled, its sedimentary rocks hiding unique fossil treasures. Some 160 million years ago, when New Zealand was still part of Gondwana, entire forests of kauri- and Norfolk pine-like trees were buried under the seafloor, where they became petrified. They have since been exposed by erosion in places such as Curio Bay. Trunks that look like trees but feel like stone lie scattered like Pick Up Sticks, embedded in the rocky shore.
Much of the Catlins is still covered in trees. Podocarps and beeches predominate in rainforest which in places comes right down to meet the ocean, and which has the same moist luxuriance as forest on the West Coast or in Fiordland.
This forest once supported a frontier logging industry, with makeshift pongaand-tussock-thatch settlements. In the wake of the sawmillers came farmers, wresting pasture from the tenacious grip of the bush. Indeed, hill pasture in the modern-day Catlins—as verdant as a golf course but littered with stumps and weathered timber—tends to look like a short back and sides, with mops of forest crowning the topmost hills and ridges.
Paddock and forest meet along ragged edges, as if the farmers have only just downed their tools and left. In some cases they probably have, Seagull tells me. Like yellow wildfire, thickets of gorse threaten to overrun the open ground.
After 12 years of dawn-to-dusk toil, Seagull’s family opted to sell their 323 ha farm. Between the forest and the gorse, he says—not to mention the subantarctic weather—they found the Catlins just too tough to handle.
At Nugget Point, a promontory that runs out to a cluster of rocky islets called the Nuggets, I’m lured into a tiny art gallery perched above a stony beach. It is the last house before the headland, and it seems like a good introduction to the Catlins. Hedged with flax and fuchsia, the cottage has a large water tank decorated with a mural of yellow-eyed penguins and seals. There is no mail delivery or phone line here, painter-in-residence Janice Wilkes tells me, but what the house does have is a wrap-around panorama of the Southern Ocean from the living-room window.
Sometimes cruise ships shelter in the lee of the Nuggets, and at night they light up like floating Christmas trees, Janice says. Twice, a whale and calf have stopped in the bay and stayed for a week. There are underwater forests of bladder kelp up to 15 m tall, and penguins nest under the floorboards, their morning calls an infallible alarm clock.
The gas heater hisses steadily as Janice dishes out another round of coffee and cake, and we watch a fishing boat bobbing in the swell, trailing a white cloud of birds. The window, like a glass IMAX screen, is the centrepiece of the house and of the artist’s life. The mouth of the Clutha is just north of here, on the horizon, says Janice, and from this spot she can tell what’s been happening upcountry: when the snow melts, the sea becomes turquoise; when the rains come, it turns brown.
The colours of the sea and the subtleties of the light hold endless fascination for her, and she has made a study of capturing them on canvas. Basically, she paints the view out of her window—penguins, seals, the Nugget seascapes—yet like Monet’s Haystacks, each time the scene is different and new. She shows me her latest work, the horizon a highlighted quicksilver, with heavy indigo clouds streaked with the apricot hues of sunrise.
How satisfying it must be to lose oneself in such a quest: to sit every morning by your window on the world, with a heater, a cup of coffee and a handful of clean brushes, and watch the tempest rearrange the subjects and relight the stage.
Seagull, an unbending pragmatist, has also been studying the view, but from a different perspective. There might be good fishing spots here and there, and perhaps a paua bed just off the point. “Nice to have a piece of coastline to yourself,” he comments approvingly.
We drive south through alternating hail squalls and blinding sunshine. The lambing season, the harshest in more than a decade, is nearing its end, and the soggy paddocks are otted with cutesy youngsters, some prancing, others using their mothers as wind breaks.
The pastoral scenes stir boyhood memories in Seagull’s mind. “We used to get lambing leave from boarding school to help our parents on the farm,” he says. “An extra 10 days at the end of the August holidays—though holidays they were definitely not.”
They would divide the farm among all the able-bodied men, and each would patrol his beat, an ovine midwife on a farm-bike. It was so cold they stitched possum skins over the handlebars for mittens.
“We had mainly Romney sheep,” Seagull recalls, “and they are notoriously difficult lambers.” Some mothers would abandon their offspring, and there were a lot of stillborns. “When you found an orphan you looked for a ewe with a dead lamb,” he says. “You’d skin the dead one, make a little fleece vest out of its skin and dress the orphan in it, so that through smell the ewe accepted it as her own.”
The lambing season was a slow, muddy marathon of worry and sleep deprivation, Seagull says, punctuated with bursts of what he calls the Southland sprint—a run-for-your-life dash in gumboots, PVC raincoat and overtrousers from a moving four-wheeler across spongy paddocks to tackle a runaway lamb.
“You can see why Southlanders revere rugby,” Seagull continues. “Here, tackling and scoring tries are practical, everyday skills.”
From the car we watch a farmer on a quad bike shepherding his flock along the road verge. Hail bounces off his ruddy cheeks like peppercorns, his eyes squint under the hood of a black anorak and his dogs hunker behind the muddy vehicle, out of the bitter wind. It’s not hard to see why Seagull’s family threw in the towel and moved to more benign climes.
But I begin to sense that I have arrived at the birthplace of the “Southern man” image. My conjecture is strengthened that night, at our campfire beside the Catlins River, not far from a Department of Conservation sign on which someone has tested the spread of his shotgun at close range.
“My old man once bought a ton of Speight’s. It was on special in Dunedin,” Seagull reminisces, looking into the flames. “Had to keep the Land Rover outside. The crates filled up the whole garage.” We gaze into the fire for a while.
“Did it last long?” I ask.
“Not as long as you’d think. Mind you, we all helped.”
I lower my voice to a low grumble: “Good on ya, mate.”
The exodus of farmers such as Seagull’s folks has brought about a changing of the guard in the Catlins. A decade ago, a consortium involving a number of large Japanese companies began buying up land and planting it in eucalypts for pulp. Grassy valleys are now blue-grey with the leaves of legions of gum trees. In the past five years alone, 21 farms have been bought up for forestry. Some locals grumble that the district’s name should be changed from Catlins to Gumlands.
“The Catlins has lost more than 6000 ha of good farmland to trees and foreign owners,” says Nick Stratford, a third-generation Catlins sheep farmer and chairman of the Sustainability of Rural New Zealand movement. “We don’t mind foreigners coming here to live, but the plantations bring absolutely no benefit to the local community.”
Fortunately, Nick says, in the past two years rising land prices and an increased demand for New Zealand farm products have halted the trend. Farming the land is once again more lucrative than planting trees on it.
Another development on the coast has been tourism. The Catlins doesn’t yet see the numbers which flock to Kaikoura or the West Coast glaciers, but given the popularity of off-the-beaten-track destinations, the region seems poised on the brink of the inevitable.
In Papatowai, roughly the mid-point of the Catlins coast, I meet long-time resident Fergus Sutherland. “Kaikoura is a place that time, went off with a bang and now tries to contain the explosion,” he tells me. “In the Catlins we’re still listening to the tick-tock of the time bomb.”
Fergus and his wife, Mary, run the area’s original ecotourism venture, Catlins Wildlife Trackers, showing small groups of visitors the secret nooks and crannies of the coast and its special wildlife. Both trained as schoolteachers, but during a stint of campervaning around Australia in 1990—between jobs and before starting their own family—they had a dream, wrote it down and turned it into a plan. It was no lofty mission statement, more a kitchen-table agreement on a set of personal guidelines they both wished to follow. They decided they wanted to make a living in a place they both enjoyed—the Catlins wasn’t a difficult choice and that their work should contribute to increased environmental awareness.
To start with, the Sutherlands offered a Catlins highlights tour: Purakaunui waterfall, Cathedral Caves, Curio Bay and a handful of other beauty spots. “We worked like sheepdogs, trying to shepherd them around all the attractions,” says Fergus. “There weren’t enough hours in the day, and so both the guides and the guided ended up exhausted. Then it dawned on us that the Catlins was not about bagging trophy sights but about experiencing life on the coast, with its own pace. We relaxed, and so did our guests. Everyone seemed to have a better-quality time.”
My own taste of that quality comes the following morning, when Fergus takes me to see the yellow-eyed penguins. We leave before dawn, driving along a farm road and then walking across paddocks towards a break in cliffs that rise some 80 metres out of the rumbling ocean.
The wind howls out of the darkness, throwing buffeting punches and making us stagger like a pair of drunken sailors. At the cliff edge a trail winds down through a tangle of scrub, blessedly out of the wind, and towards a grassy observation point above a path used by the penguins to commute to and from the sea.
We sit down on our packs and wrap up for a frigid wait until the grey day awakens, and with it the penguins. I miss the approach of the first bird but suddenly hear its piercing call so loud and close I can feel it reverberate in my chest. From among the flax and Muehlenbeckia vine the Chaplinesque figure emerges, tripping and slip-sliding down the uneven path. It waddles out to a rocky shelf which, Fergus explains, is the penguins’ launching and landing pad.
The bird turns its back to the sea, waiting for its mate, while wind gusts pick up water from the breaking sea and whip it against the shelf like blasts from a fire hose. A second penguin comes down the trail, then another. They groom and stretch, flap their flippers, splay and refold the short, stubby fans of their tails, glancing frequently at the roaring sea.
They look like surfers with peroxide-bleached coiffures eyeing the waves, and I can’t resist putting words to their antics:
“What d’ya reckon?”
“Dunno. Looks iffy.”
They shuffle a few steps closer to the edge and look again. Suddenly a big wave breaks and slams against the shelf, sending them sprint-waddling back.
“See! Told ya. I don’t like the look of it.”
Theirs, I decide, is an unenviable way to start the day. Indeed, on rare occasions Fergus has seen them abandon the whole idea of going to sea. “One would go in while the others watched, and if it got really battered, the rest would go back to their nests and sit out the storm.” Even for penguins, it seems, Catlins weather can get too rough.
Today, however, all is well. The penguins approach closer and closer to the edge, run out of room to procrastinate any further and take the plunge. Once in the water, they are transformed, liberated from landlubberly clumsiness. They porpoise about the kelp for a moment, then dive out of sight.
Despite the bitter cold, I’m glowing from the moment of natural magic I have witnessed, and from the blissful look on his face I figure that Fergus, who must have seen this performance hundreds of times, feels the same.
But he also has his worries. “As you can see, this is a very personal sort of encounter,” he says. “You can’t do it with a busload of people.” What troubles him is the floodgate of development, which, once open, could wash away the innocence of the Catlins and its reputation as “the last good place.”
The road south of Papatowai is one of the last unsealed highways in New Zealand—a classic rural road, pot-holed and corrugated, where you can see farm utes fishtailing around the corners. But for tourists unused to driving on gravel, the road is a menace, and some rental companies won’t insure their cars for it.
“We’ve had four separate accidents on this road in a day, including one head-on,” says the North Catlins’ member of the Clutha District Council, Kevin Thompson, “and the local farmers are forever pulling tourists out of the roadside ditches. I’ve been pushing for the road to be sealed for the past 22 years, and now it’s finally going to happen. In a year or so we should have a nice smooth road all the way through the Catlins.”*
The tooth-rattling drive, the relative remoteness of the region and the lack of services have acted as a natural tourist filter. Some residents believe that the simple act of sealing the road will quadruple the number of visitors, from about 50,000 per annum to 200,000-plus, and there are fears that, with increased traffic and human pressure, the “piece of coastline to oneself”—the essence of the Catlins experience—will become harder and harder to find.
Blair Somerville, owner of the Lost Gypsy art gallery in Papatowai and maker of ingenious devices he calls “rustic automata,” exemplifies the Catlins dilemma of walking with a foot on each side of the development line. He came here for the area’s natural values but makes his living from the passing traffic. The sealed road, he tells me, will be good for business but not so good for the soul.
“We fought tooth and claw against the sealing of the road,” Mary Sutherland says, “but it’s already a fait accompli. The work has begun and we just hope it doesn’t also seal the destiny of the Catlins as another tourist ant trail. There aren’t too many more places like this left.”
While in Papatowai, I meet one of the Sutherlands’ neighbours, Diana Noonan, a prolific writer of children’s and teenage fiction and one of the editors of the New Zealand School Journal.
Every year, some 750,000 copies of this venerable publication, produced without a break since 1907, are distributed throughout the country’s classrooms for four different age groups. About half of the editions are put together by Noonan in a tiny sleep-out adjacent to her Catlins home.
It’s Sunday, and the whole family—Diana, her husband (Keith Olsen, an illustrator), and their son, Max—is sprawled out on the living-room floor, splitting and scraping bunches of flax which Diana will weave into baskets to sell.
Their hospitality is instant and warm. There is coffee and cookies and travellers’ talk. To his father’s guitar accompaniment, Max plays an impressively fast Hungarian csárdás on his violin. We talk about our favourite places, in New Zealand and overseas; how some have changed while others remain pristine, and how we treasure the latter. We talk about everywhere, it seems, but the Catlins.
When I eventually steer the discussion in that direction, asking what they think about the sealing of the road, Diana says matter-of-factly: “It doesn’t worry me. The buses will come and go, confining the throngs to their air-conditioned capsules.”
It’s a miserable place, the Catlins, she adds, cold and blustery, full of mosquitoes and sandflies. “Why would people want to come here?”
Max echoes the thought: “Fiordland gets most rain, but we get most rainy days.” For a moment I feel outnumbered in my enthusiasm for the place. But then I look around and see a family who, like the Sutherlands, have carved out for themselves a comfortable, out-of-the-way niche; people living off their gardens and the work they love, perfectly content and simply wanting to be left alone. For them, a writer snooping around can mean nothing but more limelight for the place, and for their Catlins the best publicity is no publicity.
“We don’t want to market or advertise,” Diana finally says, referring to a seaside crib they rent out but meaning also the area as a whole. “People who really want to will find us. They stay for longer and become friends.”
Her message seems to be this: come in twos and threes, stay a while, explore the coast, then go back and tell only a few friends. Don’t come in droves or you’ll ruin it for us and for yourself. It brings to mind something I read in an outdoors magazine about the thorny issue of publicising wild places and thereby risking their demise: “No doubt the Lord has created the great outdoors for us to enjoy,” the editor wrote, “but surely not all of us at once.”
I can’t wait for the road to be done,” Ruth Hayes declares. “It will bring some life into the Catlins.”
Seagull and I have only just pulled into Waikawa when I’m taken in hand by the silver-haired curator of the local museum and given a whirlwind tour of the collections. On offer is the usual small-museum smorgasbord of memories: a set of sawmiller’s tools, a pictorial chronicle of the Catlins’ many shipwrecks, with captions artistically handwritten by Ruth, early hand-drawn survey maps, a soldier’s Bible pierced with a bullet hole, a suitcase organ carried around by an itinerant minister.
Ruth says the sealing of the road will have symbolic significance, finally establishing the efficient thoroughfare Catlins pioneers dreamed of. The Catlins, she says, has always been divided into two parts: north and south. During the logging era, two railway lines—from Balclutha and Invercargill—inched slowly towards each other. When linked, they would have become the region’s lifeline. But building them meant going against the grain of the land. Just out of Owaka, 70 men with picks and shovels dug a tunnel 245 m long—just one of many required. When the logging industry declined, so did the impetus to finish the railway. The two lines never met. One railhead stopped at Tahakopa, the other at Tokanui.
The early settlers had about as much success making ends meet as the railway workers. “Under the Improved Farm Settlement scheme each pioneer got 100 acres of virgin bush, ten pounds to build a house with and a bag of grass seed to sow the land they cleared for pasture,” Ruth says. “But the bush was too heavy for the men’s axes. In the end, the only money they made was from selling the seed.”
The last sawmill closed in the 1960s, and the population of the region has been dwindling ever since, many residents deserting this wilderness outpost for places with better economic prospects. The new smooth road may change all that.
“We’ve been out in the sticks for too long,” Ruth says. “We need more people living here to keep the services—the doctors, the rural mail delivery.” Otherwise, the Catlins will be a coast of hermits, encircled by one giant eucalyptus plantation.
Up the road, Steven Hayes, one of Ruth’s nephews, looks out of the window of his father’s house towards the family farm. “Too windy to spray gorse,” he concludes. “Let’s play some music.”
His father, Peter, piles up several battered instrument cases on the back of a muddy ute and nurses them up a gravel driveway towards Steven’s house. I follow, intrigued to see what kind of music the pair might make.
Their band—the Progress Valley Possum Pickers—started with a woolshed jam session with a couple of other farmers over 20 years ago, following which, “for a bit of a laugh,” they entered Gore’s Gold Guitar country music awards—and won. This modest success led to national tours, TV appearances, entertainer-of-the-year accolades and an invitation to perform at Tamworth, Australia’s country music capital. Fiddle-playing Steven, who has never had any formal music tuition, won the award for best instrumentalist.
After Australia, the world seemed theirs for the taking, but they came back to their farms and now make only sporadic appearances at country dances and such notable events as the locally staged world possum-skinning championship.
Their stage attire consists of freezing-works overalls, gumboots and a generous sprinkling of straw or hay consistent with their “dags from the Catlins” image.
The Pickers’ lair is Steven’s living room, a “bloke’s shed” kind of place where the clutter isn’t of tools and spare parts but of musical instruments: acoustic and electric violins, keyboards, banjos, mandolins—everything from a pedal-steel guitar to a home-made flute fashioned out of black PVC hose. “Great around the farm,” Steven grins. “There aren’t many musical instruments you can also use to keep your dog in behind.”
Steven pulls out his fiddle. It’s a rough-looking instrument—someone once said it looked as if it had been made with a chainsaw—and he holds it down low, the way you’d carry a loaded firearm. When he plays, he appears to be trying to saw his arm off at the elbow.
With Peter on accordion, they let rip with a couple of fast and furious reels. I can’t take my eyes off their hands: the fingernails serrated like the skyline of the Southern Alps, the skin calloused by years of farm labour. Some of Peter’s fingers are gnarled with arthritic stiffness, which makes it hard for him to play certain chords. “It’s only a minor inconvenience,” he says, winking at the pun.
The temptation to join in is irresistible. Peter dismisses my trepidation about not being able to keep up. “Don’t say sorry when you hit a bum note,” he says. “It often allows a nice chord change. And we make it up as we go, anyway.” And so, for a time, we do: Steven sawing zippy solos, Peter switching between guitar and accordion and singing with the feisty growl of an Irish rover, and me making those nice chord changes.
Theirs is a down-to-earth repertoire, simple in its three-chord structures but remarkably soul-stirring. Among the tunes is “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” a potent antiwar song about a swagman sent off to Gallipoli with much fanfare who returns home to no hero’s welcome at all.
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where my legs used to be
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve, to mourn and to pity.
“Mighty fine song,” Peter says, laying down his guitar. “And it hasn’t aged any, has it?”
The wind has abated. Farm work calls. I hadn’t realised that most of the day has passed. “Not to worry,” Peter tells me in farewell. “The time spent playing music isn’t taken out of your life span. It’s a bonus added on top.”
As I drive off to collect Seagull, the words of another Possum Pickers’ song loop in my mind: “Fire in the belly. Fire in the soul.” You certainly need it in the cold Catlins.
We head inland, following the lower Catlins River, crossing hillocky farmland towards the forest. The river twists through stands of beech, mirroring the trees in its tea-coloured water, and along its surface trout rises drift downstream like smoke rings. We fish and camp. From many campfire evenings our clothes have begun to smell of wood smoke. Our mindscapes no longer seem so gloomy. “You know, the beautiful thing about life is that it goes on,” Seagull observes, staring into the dying embers.
As we break camp next morning, I hear him singing to himself. He stops a man passing in a ute and falls into easy farmer-to-farmer conversation: the lambing, the weather—how it comes in violent cycles of highs and lows, storms and sunshine, how it bends around the hills, sparing some, pounding others.
Lambing is perhaps the biggest worry on the farmer’s mind, but he carries his burden with composure. “The weather knocked us back a bit, but we’ll be right,” he assures us.
We drive to Slope Point, the southernmost outpost of the mainland, and into the face of apocalyptic-looking squalls that bear down on the land like giant waves. There are bands of brilliant sunshine in between, and full, double-arc rainbows, and it seems for a moment as if a hand might appear out of the sky and deliver a new set of tablets. We have come to the edge of the world, and now it is time to turn around and face that world once more.
But before we do, Seagull shows me one of his childhood secret places: a gnarled macrocarpa tree forced by the wind blast to grow horizontally. Its canopy, coiffed by gales into a woolly futon, is as big as the floor of a living room and solid enough to walk across. The tree is in pollen and at the slightest move it puffs clouds of fine yellow dust, engulfing us with its piny fragrance.
We lie on our backs, squinting at rainbows that seem chiselled in the cold air. “We’d better carpe diem,” Seagull says. Another hailstorm is coming, ready to beat us down like bad news, but we can see that the next sunny patch, large and brilliant, is already on the horizon.