Peter Nelson’s travels – New Zealand – Invercargill and Stewart Island

by Peter Nelson 

It’s a Friday night and only 7:30, but there’s no one on the streets but a cop and some cleaning ladies.  And me.  Invercargil is obviously a town yanked right out of the emptiness of central Kansas.  Are ye washed in the blood of the lamb.  A middle-aged man haunts the windless sidewalks, black hair shiny as a polished shoe, clutching his coat collar tightly around his throat.  His face a blotchy reflection of some furtive florid passionless passion no doubt.  Two teenaged girls sauntering along the sidewalk behind me.  Whistle and call out, “Nice legs.”  I know it’s me they’re talking about, since no one else is on the streets.  Distinct lack of competition.

The coast near Invercargill
The coast near Invercargill

Late night after the whole town has gone to sleep, I walk on alone next to the ocean. Only a few clouds sketched across the far far shore, faint and feathery. Virginal moon, it’s the first night of the world.  And the sea these smooth black watery pastures split into jagged fragments by a thousand splintered silvery spears. A deChirico landscape where parallels meet and lines stretch vacant to the distant horizon. Driftwood and moon shadows precisely drawn upon the endless whiteness, razor-incised in the sand.  The ripples on the dunes are memories of the winds.

No ordinary night, no ordinary beach.  With that swollen silver slice angled high over the moon-mad sea — a sea of molten silver.  And the surf-shining mercury shattering into diamonds lying exhausted upon the sand.  Curling foaming a hundred frenzied white horses galloping thundering abreast tossing their moon-manes and snorting plumes of spray and the clouds gliding past the moon like swift silent albatross.

Then it’s over.  And you know it.  When the sand, untouched, tumbles in silence down the bank of a small dune.

‘The minstrel of the dawn is he,

Not too wise, but oh so free.’

And there are no birds in Greenland to sing to the waves.

Stewart Island.  Getting off the ferry from Invercargill.  My shoes just hit the sand.  Only here 5 minutes and I’m, literally metaphorically spiritually, getting OFF on this island off the southern tip of South Island.

Who’d believe the Tasman Sea could slide in so cool green and gelatinous, rubber-like over the sand glittering black and gold beneath the water.  Water slapping fishermen’s huts wobbling on wooden piles, sliding up to the black stone wall that banks the dirt road.  Sucking soundlessly at this empty silent beach.  A series of pocket-sized bays like the scallops of a shell perfectly shaped in the arc of a giant slow circle.  The ocean slips in in a single wave long and thin, the whole length of it crashing breaking at the exact same moment.  Perfect perfect beaches in miniature, each one 100 yards in length, scooped in a single slice out of the sandstone and the forest.

And the forest behind with its smells.  Of cut lemon and vanilla wafers, of crushed mimosa and this heavy sweetness like the perfume of decaying fruit.  Heavy and dark, as glistening as any tropical rain forest.  Closed in and canopied, cool and wet, leaves huge and shiny.

I came to Stewart Island expecting maybe to stay in a pub or some such for a few days until the next ferry back to the mainland.  But no hotels here.  On the off chance that there might be a cottage or something for rent at a suitably low tariff, I go into the village shop.  Before I can open my mouth, beside me a young lady is voicing the identical request to the shopkeeper.  Well, he tells her, there is a cottage that may be open, and the young lady most obligingly turns to me and says why don’t we take it together.  Why not indeed.  We go outside where she shoulders her backpack and these two dusky children run up to her.  Their absent father is an Indian chap from Fiji who left this gentle Annie up in Queenstown.

Such beautiful children I have never seen before.  Keri, the boy, is 6 and his sister Nicola is 5.  Both have identical straight black hair past their shoulders and huge dark eyes deep as pools of brown ink.

Keri and Nicola
Keri and Nicola

Well we find the cottage and a lovely homey sort of place it is too.  Only it is already occupied by two young women.  Who immediately invite the four of us to move in with them.  And so we do.

Okay, it’s a bit crowded in the cottage and the kids are sometimes noisesome, but this could well be the most beautiful part of the most beautiful country in the world.  And we’re all getting along just fine in our 3 small rooms.  On an antique coal stove Trish turns out hot scones, very tasty if a trifle low in altitude.  And acres and acres of pikelets (pancakes in miniature).  One day it rained almost all day and we stayed inside listening to the heavy drops hit the tin roof whilst having a pikelet orgy with lots of butter and golden syrup.  And everyone had a bath in spite of the total lack of privacy.  Except for the kids.  Who pleaded cleanliness.

Our tub is an oval tin pail about two feet long placed close to the stove.  A vessel rather small for a person of my particular longitude.  What you do is wash your feet first and then hang them over the front of the tub while everything else gets scrubbed.  Sitting in the warm suds waiting for more water to heat on the stove.  Gasping as Trish dumps a steaming kettleful on your head.  Keri to scrub your back.  Sending tidal waves overflowing onto the warm carpet.  Hey kid if you think this is so much fun, why don’t you have a bath.  The whole room all cosy with steam.  Okay.  Who’s next.

The next day rising early in the fine morning mist to walk with the kids out to the lighthouse.  Spotting on this green paddock edging right up to the sea three small black lambs.  And a wonderful old deserted house.  Which Trish wants to buy so she can sit and sew up in the high west gable looking out to sea.  The kids each take one of my hands and Trish and Annie each hold a small hand and the five of us linked go sweeping down the old dusty road singing “The Fox Is Out on the Town-O”.  Keri and Nicola, eyes shining, taking turns riding on my shoulders.  Watch out for those low branches, kiddo.

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Keri on my shoulders
 The group of us off to town to shop
The group of us off to town to shop

Seaweed in myriad variety.  Thick pungent brown stalks, heavy as the severed arms of an octopus.  Or small smooth black beads, golden brown teardrops, dull black raspberries — necklaces carelessly arranged on the sands by giant tidal fingers.  Or large brown grapes that swell and dry in the sun to explode with startlingly loud pops beneath the unwary foot.