Posted by: Alex | June 23, 2010

At the End of the Earth

May 8-11, 2010

With our existence on a near-perfect sphere, there is no reason that any one point should be intrinsically more alluring than any another.  In fact, there are many reasons to remain within a comfortable climatic band like any other sensible species.  Yet in a manner akin to the living dead, humans are irrepressibly seduced by the siren call of that which is inhospitable, desolate, near impossible to traverse, and preferably all of the above.  Particularly if that most motivating of words is uttered: impossible.

Thus, sitting in the bar of the South Sea Hotel, mentally planning my future travels to Antarctica, grandiose notions of exploring the far-flung continent by scheduled steamship in mockery of the hardships faced by pioneering explorers, I realized that Stewart Island was a significant landmark in itself.  Straddling forty-seven degrees of latitude, there are few other permanently inhabited islands this far south, a last bastion of humanity at the bottom of the Eastern hemisphere.

In contrast to the first treacherous expeditions of the past two centuries to conquer and civilize every last corner of the natural world, exponential advances in technology, global communication networks and inexpensive means of travel have resulted in a world that is remarkably accessible to anyone with sufficient economic means.  Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander and first to climb Mt Everest, would never have imagined the day that a 13-year-old would ascend that same formidable peak, no less call his mother from the summit.

Yet with this great dissemination of humankind have also come the familiar and telltale signs of our efficient proliferation.  Hungry for arable land, indigenous forests have been cleared to feed growing populations and embed the infrastructure that we construct our modern civilization around: transportation, water, energy, waste, and communications.  It’s remarkable what a small percentage of the planet remains that has been untouched by human beings: look out the window on any flight on any route around the world, and if over land, chances are overwhelmingly high that you will see signs of human life.

It was my curiosity to know what New Zealand looked like before human arrival that brought me to the far southern reaches of the South Island, starting with the Catlins.

My first night was a frigid one.  The wind was persistent and wet, the first signs of winter’s approach at these southern latitudes.  Arriving in Owaka under a blanket of darkness, I was having trouble finding my accommodation in the tiny village.  The small-town feel was unmistakable: the main street was empty and hardly a light remained on though it was barely half past eight.  The only homes that dared divulge their furtive residents were those with chimneys smoking.  Doubling-back on the main road through the mist, I spotted the small, dimly lit sign of the guesthouse and pulled into the driveway.

I picked up a phone by the front door to be given the entry code.  The voice on the other end, the local owner, sounded distant and warm, comfortable in a faraway place.  Walking in, I turned on the lights and looked for my room.  The hallway, bathroom, and bedroom were barely a few degrees warmer than the Antarctic winds blowing outside.  As I exhaled, my breath immediately condensed.  Settling in, I prepared for bed.  When the moment of truth arrived, I quickly stripped, leaving my long underwear on, and took a deep breath before diving under the freezing sheets.  Lying completely motionless lest I let in a draft of frosty air, I patiently waited for my body heat to warm the bed.  This was undeniably the low season for the region.

The allure of the Catlins is its isolation, rugged beauty, and rafts of protected native forest, all of which make it a very popular destination in the peak (summer) season.  It’s hard to imagine what it must be like during these busy periods, local resources stretched to the limit.  The coastline, like many parts of New Zealand, is stunningly beautiful, but the lack of development makes it particularly arresting.  In a whirlwind tour of the Catlins, I took two and a half days to visit Nugget Point Lighthouse, Tautuku beach and forest, Porpoise Bay, the Jurassic-era petrified forest at Curio Bay, and on down to Slope Point, the southernmost point of the South Island.  Gazing south toward the blue horizon, it’s a humbling feeling knowing that there is no land between you and Antarctica for over a thousand miles.

Though beautiful, I was somewhat disappointed with the Catlins.  Perhaps my expectations were set too high, but I had prepared myself for native forest as far as the eye could see and an endless number of long hikes to choose from.  Unfortunately there was a lot more cultivated land than I had expected, and the areas of native forest feel more like endangered islands than something you could lose yourself in.  I decided to push ahead to Stewart Island.

Every visitor to Stewart Island will spend at least one night in Invercargill, the southernmost town of its size and a 30-minute drive from Bluff, the fishing town famous for its oysters and the departure point for the Stewart Island ferry.  You can immediately tell the character of a town upon entering it, and unfortunately there is little to absolve Invercargill’s mediocre reputation.  Near the center of town, Queens Park is beautifully maintained, but the main street exudes fatigue and lack of character, not helped by the cold, damp sea air blowing in from the nearby ocean.  The coastline itself, though beautiful a few kilometers in either direction outside of town, is hidden several blocks behind the main street, lined by aging buildings in support of Invercargill’s port activities.

The Foveaux Strait separates Stewart Island from the South Island, and a single passenger-only ferry service connects the two on a daily basis.  Conditions can be extremely rough, but we were spared the worst of it on our way south.  Looking out the window at the waves rolling past, an albatross kept up with the ferry, swooping below the peaks of the waves, looking for an easy meal in the wake of the ship.

Entering the calm bay with Oban at its head, the town that 80% of the island’s 400 permanent residents call home, is a peaceful and idyllic scene.  Halfmoon Bay owes its name to a cartographic error, its name inadvertently swapped with neighboring Horseshoe Bay, and anchored at evenly-spaced moorings just off shore, fishing boats bob up and down in its gentle waves.

There is an old world feel to the town, a place where time has run its course at a slower pace.  Not a modern building in sight, the South Sea Hotel, the island’s pub, stands out as the only two-story building on the waterfront, juxtaposed with a bright, human-sized giant chessboard across the street just off the beach.  With hardly any paved roads, there are few cars on the island, a luxury that must be shipped across the strait on a cargo ship.  Boats are the primary form of transportation to islands and coves both near and far, and people often walk through the native forest to reach their homes, typically impossible to see through the dense foliage.

The sound of birdcalls is almost deafening.  Rakiura, the Māori name for Stewart Island, is almost entirely an untouched national park, carpeted in native forest.  Their indigenous habitat intact and mostly free of land-based predators, birds thrive here.  A symphony of birds calling one another through the forest can be heard across a wide range of pitch.  Heard at once, the calls of each species are noticeably distinct and some, like that of the Tui, are incredibly intricate and melodic (audio: MP3).  Others, such as the Kererū, the New Zealand pigeon, are vocally more reserved, but as they hop from tree to tree their distinctively noisy wings give them away as you crane your neck up to towards the forest canopy, straining to find the culprit.

I spent a day and a half walking along some of the local forest paths, including half a day spent at Ulva Island, a 15-minute boat ride from Oban.  Ulva Island is a unique conservation area in that it is viciously protected from any land-based predators that could disrupt the native bird life.  Native New Zealand birds are particularly vulnerable to predators as there were few on land before their introduction by European settlers.  Signs warn visitors to check for rats in anything they might be carrying.

Walking along the small island’s tracks you have the ability to feel almost entirely alone with nature, wandering through the dense temperate rainforest and deserted rocky beaches.  Sitting motionless for a few minutes at the side of the track, you might be lucky to spot a rare Saddleback, a once endangered species that has been recently reintroduced to Ulva Island.  Taking in the calm view from one of the beaches in seeming isolation from the modern world, a group of wekas’ insatiable curiosity for what I was carrying in my backpack quickly reminded me that I was probably not the first human to set foot on these shores.

Rakiura is beautifully peaceful, a tight-knit sanctuary far from the reaches of the modern and busy world.  The more I explored, the more I realized that remoteness requires additional preparation.  Options for activities are fairly limited unless you’ve come with the right equipment or have made arrangements in advance.  The Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, is a 3-day tramp around the northern part of the island, and can be extended in various places to make up to a 10-12 day tramping excursion.  With the undeveloped land preventing any sediment runoff, scuba diving is also said to be phenomenal in the crystal-clear, if cold, waters around the island.  Brachiopods — living fossils, having first appeared on Earth over 500 million years ago — abound in the Te Wharawhara Marine Reserve.  Though I had my diving gear with me, there is no operator on the island, and diving trips need to be arranged in advance on the mainland.

Somehow fitting to the seclusion of the region and playing into my lack of preparedness, I spent several hours chatting with an American woman, the owner of a local cafe, who has been based on Stewart Island for the past 18 years.  After completing her PhD at the University of Otago in Dunedin, she landed her dream job at an organization in Paris before quitting 6 months later and moving to Stewart Island to carve out an entrepreneurial and independent life.  The first foreign transplant to New Zealand I had spoken to at length on my trip, with a familiar American perspective no less, we had a fascinating conversation.

A common topic amongst any travelers in a foreign land, cultural differences and identity are very personal to me.  With an American father and Mexican mother, my childhood was split between three countries (USA, Spain, and the UK), and I constantly struggle to answer the simple and common question, “Where are you from?”  I very much feel like a citizen of the world, with the benefit of exposure to different points of view from an early age and a resulting open mind, and yet it’s hard to deny that certain cultures have had their particular influence on me.  At various times in my life I have felt greater allegiance to one country over another, but I have never felt entirely accepted in return.  Be it something as simple as a difference in accent or more complex such as cultural references in humor, a gap in historical knowledge, or the lack of shared, culturally typical experiences growing up (for example, I never experienced “prom” in the US), people are quick to seize and focus on differences.

I had the feeling that despite being a Stewart Island resident for 18 years, my American friend felt somewhat ostracized by the community.  Entirely familiar with unfounded and unfair resentment — as a schoolboy in the UK, being “American” was enough of an infraction to incite bullying — I asked her why she thought that was.  Her interpretation was that she was feeling the backlash of “tall poppy syndrome,” a culturally-ingrained form of envy where the most successful members of a community are struck down.  Without engaging in a full analysis of the undoubtedly complex interaction between personal psychology, culture, and unknown skeletons within a very small community, it’s safe to say that cultural upbringing and differences undoubtedly play a strong role.

When traveling, I tend to distance myself from being identified as American, playing my background to my advantage.  The reputation that Americans have for being culturally ignorant is unfortunately often true and an embarrassment.  In New Zealand I generally identify as British, which tends to immediately present some level of comfort and familiarity.  I’ve come to realize that my upbringing in the UK, aged 10 to 18, likely affected my personality more than I’ve given credit to.  Kiwi and British culture have significant commonalities, and, by American standards, my more modest and reserved style is well suited to the local culture.

I departed Rakiura the next day, and watching another albatross follow our ferry north to Bluff, I reflected on our conversation.  When traveling for long periods, enlightening conversations seem to occur at the most unexpected times.  In this case, it wasn’t until I stepped away into a different culture and environment that I started to think about some of the things that are intrinsic to my own behavior.  Already relatively well-traveled, the difference in this case has been the luxury of having the time to reflect and question some basic assumptions.  The irony is not lost on me that it took a journey to the opposite side of the planet to gain a small amount of insight into my basic personality.  But that’s what this journey is all about.

[ My route on Google Maps. ]


  1. […]  At the end of the earth  Latitude 44 muses on cultural identity […]

  2. Read the whole blog, enjoyed it emmensely. Loved the Dunedin post having grown up on the Otago Peninsula.

  3. Hamish

    Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you had an enjoyable read. Plenty more to come!


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