Driving past the holiday park leaves me feeling fuzzy — numbed to my actions and what they symbolize. I’m driving to the Catlins and leaving Te Anau. My home for the past 4.5 months, Te Anau is a tiny, buzzing little place popular simply because it’s the closest town to the iconic Milford Sound. Jobs are plentiful with all the tourism pouring in, and I’d had as many as three simultaneously. My bright dreams of a working holiday had faded during the grind, and I felt lost.
What did I come here for again?
And now, I’m driving. I do so cautiously, still familiarizing myself with left-hand driving and the rules of the road… not to mention my new wheels. A 20+ year old Honda Integra purchased off a co-worker (thanks Kevin!), it now bears the moniker Namu (Sandfly) and will be my trusty steed for the next phase of my journey.
Manapouri slides by, and I mark the moment where I break my previous threshold for southward travel . With every new turn of the wheels, I’m closer to the South Pole than I’ve ever been. My road map and GPS sit unopened and unused on the passenger seat. After so many months of having schedules, plans, obligations… I am free once more to embrace the journey.
A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu
At the quaint hamlet of Clifden, I take a break and enjoy an apple next to the river on the far side of the suspension bridge. Built at the close of the 19th century, it was — in turn — rendered obsolete by the construction of a newer, safer two-lane bridge just downstream. A relic though it may be, it lingers — a snapshot of the past.
Tuatapere comes into view, and I detour to the coast to see the Blue Cliffs. Namu doesn’t like the gravel access road, and his front left shock grunts with each impact. He whines, but (as a good friend would say) he’s a sporty little goat!
As truly blue as their name suggests, the Blue Cliffs are set against an even bluer sky as waves pound the stones to sand.
Fuel replenished, belly appeased, and soul soaring on an updraft, I carry on down the coast, stopping at McCracken’s Rest to gaze down the craggy coastline. Behind an elemental veil, Stewart Island lurks in the distance — a place I’d love to see before my time here is through.
I nearly miss the turn-off for Gemstone Beach, but spot the sign just in time. The sea-foam whipped to a furious froth and sprayed up the banks of the dunes by the howling wind makes for a delightful sojourn — until I plop back into Namu (that’s the car, remember?) and squish my camera beneath me. It won’t be until later that I realize I’ve broken the display with that careless move.
Eventually — after powering through the urban grime of Invercargill (can you tell I haven’t seen a city in months?) — I reach the Catlins. The sky is grim and dark, and the wind lashes my face with icy drizzle as I squint at a map by the roadside. A Toyota 4Runner veers off the main road and pulls up beside me. The driver leans out, giving me a thumbs-up and a quizzical look.
“Nope!” I reply without thought, grinning. “Thanks, though!”
It’s hard to be lost when you don’t have a plan. Or a destination.
It’s just about time to turn in for the day. Fort Rose turns out to be just a bit further along the road, and I find one of the freedom camping spots I wrote down: Moray Terrace. The wind has ramped itself up to near-hurricane intensity by now, and I find myself staggering as I walk up the road to an art gallery/ cafe. There is a sign out front which reads Hot Pies. My stomach rumbles in anticipation as I push the door open.
The owner walks in behind me as I enter and promptly informs me that all the artwork on display has been created by him and his wife. I notice a painting of a woman lazing on a beach chair, chilled drink in hand and stunner shades on. “Is this her?”
He gives a wry chuckle. “That’s my mother-in-law, and — if you ask me — hanging on the wall right there is the best place for her!”
The sun fades and dusk settles. I’ve arranged Namu’s interior for sleeping and have hunkered down, burrowing into my newly-purchased Snuggy (oh yes, I went there) and listening as the wind rages outside. Namu shudders with each gust, but no drafts seep in. Warm, snug, and full, I smile and think about my day spent driving to the Catlins. It has been a huge change from the grind of the past 4.5 months. After all the work, I am back on the road. I’m free.
My eyelids feel heavy, and in the moments before they shut, I think about the man who checked in on me earlier.