WHY YOU SHOULD START TALKING TO STRANGERS #7: TO THE SOUTH OF SOUTH ISLAND OF NEW ZEALAND


THOSE STRANGERS YOU MEET ON THE ROAD… OR ELSEWHERE

SEVENTH EPISODE: TO THE SOUTH OF THE SOUTH ISLAND OF NEW ZEALAND

(Lis cet article en Français, bébé!)


While travelling, you often get some random acts of kindness. Maybe because you’re more up to it, more open to it, and also more dependent on it. Here, I would like to share some of those encounters with strangers, some of those random acts of kindness, some of those great surprises I had with strangers, and therefore what I learned from it. I’ve got plenty of little stories that I’d like to share and write about. I hope this little saga will have the advantage of bringing a different, yet optimistic glance upon our world.

I’m telling you, folks. You can talk to strangers. That’s pure happiness.


DUNEDIN – INVERCARGILL – STEWART ISLAND (NEW ZEALAND)

NOVEMBER 2015

It’s Sunday morning. I’m hopping off the bus that brought me back to Dunedin. My mind is still filled up with sceneries from Portobello, its green hills and its wild nights. My poster is ready: today I’m going to hitchhike my way to Invercargill, almost at the southernmost tip of the South Island. The following day I’m supposed to cross the Foveaux Strait to get to Stewart Island and start a month of volunteering over there.

I’ve grown more confident with hitchhiking, and I have now fallen in love with this feeling of freedom it gives me. It’s like your journey is a blank space that you’re ready to fill up with anything interesting that might come up.

The only limits are the ones you decide for yourself: between now and tomorrow morning, there’s enough time and space for life to happen and take me by surprise.


ON MEETING PEOPLE WHILE HITCHHIKING – THOMAS’ FAVORITE PLACE

It’s still quite a challenge to carry around Monster the backpack until finding a good spot to hitchhike. This time, it only takes about 10 minutes of me raising my thumb and smiling with my crooked teeth next to the signpost indicating “Invercargill” that Thomas is stopping by and picking me up. It turns out he’s about to go back home, in Invercargill. We’re a perfect match, then, I can go down South in one go. He’s working for a company called Trucks Stop, that makes him drive around the South Island for work. He has just spent the week-end in Dunedin and doesn’t really like to drive down to Invercargill: he says the road is quite boring, which makes him happy he found some company on the way.

You never know how the ride is going to be when you’re hitchhiking: will the driver be friendly? Talkative or shy? Will we manage to share stories and interests? Are we going to ignore each other? Will the driver be a perfect douchebag? Or on the contrary, did I just meet another lifelong friend? It’s never that easy to get along with a complete stranger. Even if you’re supposed to share a car together for a few hours.

But Thomas and I are comfortable with each other right away, which is as much as a good sign as a relief for me. We’re talking about a thousand things and I guess that’s why he decides we should make a detour and drive along the Scenic Road through the Catlins region. He explains that’s his favourite place in New Zealand and he just loves driving this road in particular. I do really appreciate the gesture considering the detour is taking almost one hour more to get to Invercargill, which means Thomas would be back home later than he originally planned. I feel like the luckiest girl on Earth.

As we’re driving through the Catlins, everything around us is so peaceful, wild and green, that we both stopped talking. There’s just the vastness of nature around us, the ocean and its crashing waves on our left, and my gratitude burning my chest. I’m still wondering what Thomas was thinking at that moment. Was he happy he showed something as intimate as his favourite place to a random French woman hitchhiking across New Zealand? Or was he just feeling this inner serenity when you’re going back to a familiar place? I would never know. I didn’t dare to ask. I just didn’t want to break that silence, which for once was surprisingly not uncomfortable at all.

When Thomas drops me at the I-Site (the tourist office) of Invercargill, he gives me his business card in case I need anything when I’m back from Steward Island. He says he might show me some other places. I only started to have butterflies in my stomach that Thomas disappears from my life as suddenly as he showed up three hours before.

Even though I tried to reach for him a month later, we never had the chance to meet again. However, thanks to people like Thomas I’ve had fallen in love with hitchhiking and meeting random strangers. (Thomas, if you read me, THANK YOU for those three hours.)


HELLO INVERCARGILL!

As I arrived quite early in Invercargill, I’m heading to the Southland Museum and its famous Tuatara that Thomas talked to me about. The Tuatara are some small endemic reptiles from New Zealand, and even though they look like lizards, they belong to some other specie that gathers both lizards and snakes. They’re endangered and they are very interesting beings since they’ve been on Earth for the past 200 million years (how cool is that?) The other super cool thing is that Tuatara have a photosensitive third eye that no one really knows anything about. Scientists believe it could help them to determine the light/dark cycles and help them with thermoregulation.

I know it’s silly, but since the Tuatara are a really old specie, I was somehow imagining them way bigger, a bit dinosaur-like. It turns out that the Tuatara are quite small, about 60 cm long for the male and 45 cm long for the female. They’re really cool though, I love the crest on their back, which makes them look like tiny crocodiles.

The Queens Gardens behind the museum are offering a very welcomed stroll in this end of afternoon. There’s a huge bird cage with parrots and endemic birds I had never seen before. I keep on strolling in the city which is better than expected thanks to some Art Deco buildings here and there.


ON MEETING PEOPLE IN HOSTEL’S KITCHENS – SUNSET WITH GARY

After buying some groceries, I’m back to the hostel thinking about having a nice dinner and going straight to bed to read when Gary knocks at my door. I met Gary in the kitchen earlier today when I checked in, he’s a Scottish man who’s been living in New Zealand for the past 30 years or so. He has a really (REALLY) strong accent, Gary, a mix between the Scottish accent, the Kiwi accent and the accent you get when some teeth are missing. He speaks a bit of French though and it’s easy to laugh with him. He’s spending a few days in Invercargill because there’s a motorbike race contest in the area. He’s really fond of motorbikes.

When he knocks on my door that evening and asks me if I have a car, he’s just about to drive to the beach in time for the sunset and he’s looking for a companion. He drives to Oreti Beach, a beach where you can drive (like the one in Northland! It seems that I would never stop to compare the Northland and the Southland and play the game of differences). That’s where the motorbike race happened the past weekend. It’s the end of the day, but since it’s Summertime, the sun won’t set until 9:30-10:00 PM. The place is so peaceful, though, the sun is bathing everything and everyone in its warmth.

When I told Gary I haven’t been to Bluff either and didn’t really plan to go since I had little time before boarding the boat on the next day, he decides I should absolutely have a look before leaving. Bluff is (almost) the most southernmost town of the South Island of New Zealand. We climb Bluff Hill and here we have this mind-blowing view over the bay and Stewart Island is right in front of us. The sun is slowly going down and the sky is now painted with bright pink and orange. Am I dreaming again? There’s something almost too unpredictable and random in this day that I have a hard time believing I’m actually here. As my head is still in the sky, Gary drives us to Stirling Point where there’s this signpost with all sorts of directions, like the one you can find in Cape Reinga, the (almost) most northernmost point of the North Island of New Zealand – which is now exactly 1 401km away.

I went first to Cape Reinga a little bit more than 3 months ago. Now I can say I crossed New Zealand from North to South, even though I still have plenty of things I want to see in the middle and on the sides. I’m a little bit moved, I’m thinking about Anaïs, with whom I discovered the Northland while on an epic road trip. And I’m so grateful I had found Thomas, then Gary on the way, otherwise I would have missed the Catlins and the famous Bluff’s signs.

In the car, Gary’s telling me about his wife he left home, and how worried he is: she has a brain tumour, inoperable, and she’s been forgetting a lot of things. Since the doctors discovered the tumour, they’re more or less living like housemates: her behaviour has dramatically changed like she’s another person. He left some sticky notes all over the house before leaving, as well as emergency numbers next to the phone. He needed this time off, though, away from everything. I nod and stay silent. What could I say? I’m just hoping this little drive made him as happy as I was.


ON MEETING PEOPLE ON FERRY BOATS – THE FEARLESS CLÉMENTINE

The next morning, I take the bus in front of the I-Site to go back to Bluff and take the ferry. My friend Selena told me that when she crossed a few weeks ago, the sea was so rough everyone was puking on the boat… That was the worst boat ride she ever had. Oh well. I had never been seasick, but I’m feeling a bit anxious. The weather seems fine, so fingers crossed the sea will be calm.

In the bus, I start to chat with another French girl, Clémentine. She’s going to Stewart Island to hike the North West Circuit, a 10 days track around the island. Clem’s backpack is even more monstrous than my Monster. She needs 10 days of food, plus her tent, a cooker, a sleeping bag. It looks like it weighs a ton. I’m a bit envious, she’s a true adventurer for sure! She tells me about the time she hiked the GR20 in Corsica, and that other time she hiked the Mont Blanc. She’s planning to hike her way from South to North after her hike in Stewart Island, following the Kepler Track, the Routeburn Track, the Heaphy Track and the Abel Tasman Track (among others). What a woman! I listen to her, every ounce of me wishing to be more like her: strong, independent, fearless.

Crossing the Foveaux Strait goes smooth and well in the end. The sea is calm, the sun is shining, what a perfect weather to be at sea! I engage the conversation with a few people living on the island, they all seem to know the place I’m going to work at, the Stewart Island Smoked Salmon (SISS). I signed up to stay there for a whole month, so it’s nice to know a bit more about the people living in Oban.

Once we’re in Oban harbour, the one and only town of Stewart Island, I give my phone number to Clémentine, hoping she would text me once her hike is over. I do really want to know everything about her adventure, and I have so many questions about hiking alone!

I couldn’t have predicted that we would see each other so many times after that time on the ferry. I would work with Clementine in a restaurant in Te Anau about a month later, she would the help me to pack my bag for my solo hike on the Kepler Track, and we would even meet in Bali and in Marseille. Thanks to people like Clémentine, I put myself more and more on hiking paths, for it seems I could be fearless as well!


HELLO STEWART ISLAND!

Stewart Island is also known as the third island of New Zealand. 1 746 km². About 400 inhabitants. The Rakiura National Park covers about 80% of the island. There are less than 28 km of roads. But more than 280 km of hiking paths. There are indeed three famous tracks on the island: the Rakiura Track, one of the 9 Great Walks (32 km), the North West Circuit (125 km) and the Southern Circuit (71,5 km).

Stewart Island is also called Rakiura in the Maori language, which means “glowing skies”, for there are high chances of witnessing Auroras Australis (the Southern Lights) down there. The original Maori name, Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui, The Anchor of Maui’s canoe, refers to the Maori legend telling how New Zealand has been formed: Stewart Island would be the Anchor of South Island (the Canoe) on which Maui, a famous hero in the Maori mythology, caught a Fish: the North Island.

In this little island, since there are no predators, birds are kings. Kiwi, Weka, Kaka, Kereru, Fantail, Yellow Eyed Penguin, Sooty Shearwater, Muttonbird, Silvereye, Tomtit, etc.. Some are endemic species, some are endangered and protected on the island. The ornithologist paradise would be Ulva Island, a tiny little piece of land which is a bird sanctuary. It seems that I will most likely spot most of the birds pictured in my guide book around here.


Southern Lights, non-flying birds, numerous hikes. Hectares of forests surrounded by the sea. I’m going to live on an island full of beautiful promises for a whole month. I’ve just set foot there, on this sunny day, that I already knew this would be quite an adventure.

Little did I know back then that I would come back to the Southern Comfort Backpacker of Invercargill and rent a car for the first time to explore the Catlins. And surely I had no idea that Clémentine would become a close friend and that we’re still in touch today (we wrote to each other yesterday!)

(TO BE CONTINUED, BABY !)


LET’S GO THERE :

THE CATLINS, on the Southern Scenic Route between Dunedin & Invercargill

SOUTHERN COMFORT BACKPACKERS, 30 Thomson St, Invercargill

QUEENS PARK, Gala St, Invercargill

INVERCARGILL SOUTHLAND MUSEUM, 108 Gala Street, Invercargill

ORETI BEACH, follow Dunns Road, Otatara

BLUFF & SIGNPOST & BLUFHILL, Flagstaff Road, Bluff

FERRY STEWART ISLAND EXPERIENCE, From Bluff Harbour to Oban Harbour

STEWART ISLAND SMOKED SALMON, 11 Miro Crescent, Oban


WHY YOU SHOULD START TALKING TO STRANGERS #7: TO THE SOUTH OF SOUTH ISLAND OF NEW ZEALAND

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