I left the penguin area later than expected, and had to hoof it in the gathering dusk to get to my destination for the evening, Owaka, which was another hour’s drive over hilly terrain in my putt-putt minivan. I wanted to arrive for check in at a decent hour at the small holiday park I was staying at, because these are little families running these places who want to have dinner and sit around in their comfy clothes and chill without interruption just like we all do after the work day is done. I only took the bare minimum of photos along the way, because you can’t just NOT stop and take pics when you drive in NZ.
And this was in the Catlins, a famously picturesque, less-touristed area of rolling hills and coastal vistas and wildlife gathering areas. It was pretty as hell, but in a modest sort of way, compared to the gobsmacking vistas of the Fiordland region.
I arrived at a semi-respectable 8:35pm, checked in, and asked the proprietor if I could go out and return again later without disturbing anyone unduly, and if so, where would he recommend I go to have a pint? There were an entire two places to choose from. He confirmed I was by myself, and then unhesitatingly recommended the Lumberjack. I had read in my guide that the other place, Ryley’s, was a locals’ favorite, which sounded better to me, so I inquired why – was it perhaps unsafe to go as a single female? “No, no,” he replied. “You just find, ohhh, a nicer sort at the Lumberjack,” he explained. “You might find ‘em very friendly at Ryley’s – fight could break out too, on a rowdier night. But no, it’s totally safe. It’s more, ah, colorful, is all.”
Well, that was what I wanted, so I decided to hit one for a drink and snack, then check out the other. I quickly scoped out my intended site for the night before the light disappeared totally so I’d know where I was going when I came back in darkness, and returned to town. I was dressed in a nice pair of jeans with a deep fuchsia scarf twined around my neck under my black jacket, my black newsboy-like (tasteful) black cap covering my unruly and untouched-by-flat-iron bangs, and my faithful Chuck Taylors. Not dressy, but not like a ruffian either. I parked the van smack between the two places and headed to the Lumberjack. I was disquieted to observe as I got closer lots of Audis and Mercedes in the carpark. Peering in the enormous plate glass windows, I realized that, for backwoods NZ, this place was quite fancy – not china and white linen perhaps, but polished tabletops, wineglasses, a fire burning in the fireplace. Not what I was anticipating [nor wanting] at all, but I felt obliged to go in after they saw me approach from so far thru the huge windows. It was obvious from the arrangement of three long tables packed with people that it was a private party taking place, but out of politeness I went up to the waitress at the rear counter who’d already caught my eye to explain I’d planned to have a snack and drink, but that I saw they had an event going on and I’d just be off. She replied, “Oh, wait a moment – hold on; we have leftovers from the buffet we just put out. We might be able to do you up a good dinner from that; just let me check with the kitchen.” I tried to demur, but it was fruitless. While she was clearly of very kindly intent, I really did not want to stay in this awkward situation, nor did I want to be served a heaping plate of breathed-on, leftover buffet scrapings. Even if they were fancy ones.
An older lady returned as asked if she could help me, and I reiterated my little tale and apologized again, and stated my intent to just take my leave, truly. As I was speaking I noticed the chalkboard breakfast menu displayed behind her, and so as not to seem too rude while I evaded any possibility of becoming saddled with buffet leavings, I gestured to the board and remarked that maybe I’d just try to return for breakfast (more out of empty cordiality than any true statement of intent).
She paused and replied, “Oh, I don’t know that you’d want to wait for that – you’d probably plan to be off before then.”
“Oh, no worries; I’m not exactly an early bird,” I said. “When do you open?”
“Well, when were you planning to try to come?” she returned.
Slightly puzzled, I hazarded a guess of perhaps 9:30?
“Oh, no, we won’t be open ‘til after that,” she said, shaking her head sadly. With no more to say, I apologized again for intruding, and made my escape into the fresh air. As I headed down the street to Ryley’s, the local’s hangout, I reflected, rather confused, “Did she just try to discourage me from coming back?? That was…. weird.” Now, it’s not unusual to find places studding the New Zealand countryside that have opening hours that are more general guidelines than a strict commitment to actually be present with door unlocked and ready for patronage, but it still seemed a bit strange she’d not know when they intended to open up on the morrow and just TELL me when it was, for goodness’ sake.
Ryley’s proved to be an extraordinarily brightly lit bar with a decent beer selection, a number of electronic games (gambling and otherwise), a pool table, and approximately seven individuals sitting quietly at their respective tables. Looking around the room, I concluded the idea of a fight breaking out seemed about as likely as the prime minister popping in for a brew. As I hefted my frosty, long-awaited beer, I was hailed in an American accent by the table behind where I was standing at which two gentlemen were seated. “We know you!” the older one contended. “We were on the Fox Glacier hike with you.”
Wow. Seven patrons in a two tumbleweed town’s little dive bar, and it turns out we went on the same outing together some 900 kilometers away. He introduced himself and his son and I joined them for a chat, discovering they were from Brooklyn (very near one of my old apartments); dad was a veterinarian and the lad about to start college, and they’d come to New Zealand to do a bike trip but had rented a car to tour around at a slightly faster pace for their last few days in the country. While I didn’t remember them, I did recall their only other bike trip compatriot, a young guy from Australia who chatted me up while we were descending the glacier.
We were joined later by the oldest bar patron, a small chap full of liquid joviality with a tanned, wizened-apple face and a nearly indecipherable Kiwi twang that was exacerbated by his toothlessness. “Ah, Americans, are ye?” he greeted us as he sidled over and somehow launched into a tale of his first job as a groom for which he was paid a grand total of a dollar a week, and how he managed to get a chance to race one of the thoroughbreds he cared for when the normal jockey took suddenly ill, and at the age of 14—too young to bet on his own—got his dad to place a wager on his 30-some-to-1 odds horse, which ended up winning with him on its back, gaining him a tidy windfall, a job as a jockey, and the loot to ask out on a date some lovely lass above his station that he’d had his eye on. Possibly apocryphal? Sure – but damned entertaining, at least the bits one could make out by concentrating really hard and breaking in every now and then with confirming questions. After a second pint I said my goodbyes and wended back to my campsite for lights out.
In the morning I made coffee and took my cup and camera down to the walkway to Surat Bay, a wildlife-attracting curling spit of sand to which my holiday park was adjacent. Supposedly the place is a hotbed of sun-basking seals and sea lions, but aside from heaps of squid-tentacle-resembling seaweed, I saw pretty much nothing (nor sun, either, on the grey and rain spitting day), though I did I round the sand curve just in time to see a couple watching an enormous male sea lion drag himself into the surf.
I packed up shop and continued with my day’s itinerary, which was more of the same: visiting well-known wildlife areas (like Nugget Point), which (often after long, time-consuming detours on narrow snaky tertiary roads) more frequently than not proved to have few to none of their famed inhabitants visibly present.
My route took me through Dunedin, which I considered stopping at for at least lunch if not the night until I found myself thoroughly turned off of that idea by the aggravating traffic (I wasn’t even able to find a parking spot at the grocery store to zoom in to restock my beverages) and seemingly lackluster town.
I continued north towards Palmerston, ravenously hungry at about 1:30pm, and rang up the famous restaurant about an hour’s drive was dead ahead of me, Fleur’s Place, to see if I’d be able to come up and eat. On their website, they have this to say about themselves: When British television chef and restaurateur Rick Stein was told he could choose to go anywhere in the world to write a travel article for English newspaper the Daily Mail, he chose Fleurs Place in Moeraki, New Zealand. The Lonely Planet guidebook had stated that it was hard as hell to get a reservation, but you could get lucky if you tried to slither in between lunch and dinner servings.
Well, it turns out that the kitchen is straight-up closed between lunch and dinner, so I don’t know what Lonely Planet was on about, but the woman on the phone suggested they’d still be able to serve me their seafood chowder, she thought, since that’s just kept hot in a tureen in the back anyway. I was disappointed and annoyed with the damned guidebook, but hungry and wanting a chance to try their food, so off I went.
Fleur’s is literally right next to the fishing boats: there’s an outdoor sink and a guy cleaning the catch up for the kitchens.
I ordered my soup and tried not to gnaw off my arm while I was waiting. It arrived, scalding hot and looking lovely.
I blew and blew and blew on a bite and took a slurp – yep, seafoody… but it tasted like salt hadn’t been invented yet. I can’t recall ever having used the table salt shaker before in my life —perhaps for fries, but never in a nice restaurant, egads— but I salted in this time. Tasted it again. Salted it again. Tasted another time; salted once more. Finally, on the THIRD salting go round, it was acceptable to eating. I was way surprised that it was so underprepared as to require so much input from me, and while not bad, the soup was merely that – not bad. Certainly not something that would have warranted destination dining, thought the place was charmingly rustic and eclectically decorated, even though I had also been seated next to a huge, farewell-lunch work group of plump middle-aged hens, drunk on wine and howling earsplittingly.
So, it was Saturday afternoon, and decision time. Continuing north, I’d have another opportunity for penguin viewing at Oamaru – this time a commercialized venture, with bleachers, reported pushy camera-wielding Japanese tourists, and spotlights to better see the penguins with. Which –aside from the bit about the penguis– sounds utterly horrifying. Plus my timing was a bit awkward for sunset arrival; I’d have to wait around for a while. From there, I’d head inland to Mount Cook.
However: I was feeling a bit like going out, too. It was a Saturday. I hadn’t had much social contact for a bit, and there was a leg that jaunted over to from Palmerston to Queenstown… so I decided, what the hell: it’s Saturday night, and I’m going to enjoy it. I had to head inland at some point anyway to get to Mount Cook, and I had been disappointed to miss some of the Lord of the Rings filming sites when I was in Q’town before, so I turned the van around and aimed her in the right direction for dinner and some barhopping.