At around 3am this morning it sounded like the howling wind might blow the thin walls of the cottage down. I reckon it must have gusted up to around 70 miles per hour at times during the night.
The garden is white from a heavy covering of hail, some of which cracks like metal coins against the glass and is loud enough to make you think it might actually smash the windows. We didn’t come here very well prepared so breakfast is the remains of last night’s tinned spaghetti on pasta (!), one slice of bread and a single forlorn-looking potato. At least there is some fine roasted Columbian to compensate for the filling-but-rather-bland-and-disgusting food.
“Is the weather usually this severe?” I ask the well filled out lady with red farmer’s daughter’s cheeks from the next house, a kilometre up the road, who is acting landlady for the cottage.
“It’s New Zealand, hey. We get four seasons in 20 minutes here.” She proudly tells us like it is the only place in the world like that. “And it’s a big place. We are pretty cut off here, hey. I don’t suppose you guys are used to anything like this at home, hey.”
Alex doesn’t bother to point out that Argentina is about twenty three million times bigger than New Zealand. And I am not about to tell her that we get four seasons in 18 minutes where I come from. I think the lady in question, as affable as she is (bless her), has never been further than up the road to Dunedin in her life.
An hour of driving later and we hit Curio Bay, an exposed peninsula where the south island’s road south ends. It is being absolutely pounded by storm-force winds and hail. Lazy Dolphin Lodge has simple second floor rooms with heart-warming views of the adjacent wild beach and is just 30 metres from the kinds of rip curling crashing waves that most amateur surfers would die for. As this is one of the most beautiful spots in the south of this island I half expected it to be rammed with rugby fans, but Alex and I are the only people staying at the lodge, while only a handful of hardy campervanners brave the elements at the small camp site near the penguin colony at the end of the exposed peninsula.
After a day of mugs of tea, reading novels and strolls along the deserted beach inspecting the huge carcasses of some kind of mammoth jellyfish, we head down to the Petrified Forest at 5.30pm in search of the penguins. These yellow-eyed penguins are the rarest species still not extinct and this is apparently their favoured spot anywhere in the world for mating. It is certainly a wild, raw place where the constant crashing of huge waves and a screaming wind add to the already intense atmosphere created by the soaring cliffs and the fossilised remains of trees that date back millions of years. The sight of the first penguin surfing into the rock pools from the wild open ocean is something to behold. After initially struggling to get his land legs, he shakes himself down and slowly waddles off to the sheltered safety of the cliffs. As the darkness of the storm clouds is accentuated by the dying light, the dozen or so spectators present are expecting a whole army of penguins to suddenly arrive on the waves…but that is it! One solitary penguin has put in an appearance.
Not knowing the habits of penguins, Alex and I decide to persevere until it is dark, in case there are some late returnees from the South Pacific Ocean.
With everybody else scarpering we are rewarded with the appearance of a pair of penguins not from the ocean but from the landside. This intimate couple must have arrived shortly before we reached the Petrified Forest at 5.30 and waited until the penguin tourists departed before setting off for their evening stroll. They actually seem very much in love, as much as you can make such judgments about these creatures that call the harsh Antarctic home for several months of the year.
Then with it pitch dark and a full moon rising, and not wishing to be accused of being penguin worriers we leave the four penguins we have spotted to it.
Later, listening to the wind, horizontal rain and hail lashing against the house from the ocean and the waves crashing nearby, we discover that there are only four mating pairs of penguins here at the moment, so we actually had a 50% success rate. I also reflect upon the fact that, due south from where I am sat as I write this; all there is out there is storm-ravaged ocean all the way to the frozen wastelands of Antarctica.
For the second time in two months I find myself at the very end of the world: the first time in Tierra del Fuego in sight of the South Atlantic in late July, and now in September just metres away from the South Pacific.
RWC Daily September 13
How did my life reach this point? Is a question many of us often ask ourselves. It can be for positive or negative reasons but the question is generally prompted by some sense of the unreal. I write this as I lie on a sofa in a farmhouse cottage in the rural Catlins feeling rather cut off from the outside world. There is no internet here nor is there any mobile phone coverage for around 20 kilometres. Rain lashes against the big windows and a gale causes the front door knob to rattle. The nearest ATM cash machine is apparently 50 kilometres away and the closest thing that resembles a shop, a 20-minute drive down an unsealed track. My original plan for this day, conceived of months ago, was for a romantic stay by a gorgeous windswept beach with my then girlfriend. Instead, I find myself sharing this cottage, in a remote corner of New Zealand, with a bloke from Argentina whom I met a little over a week ago in an airport motel, a couple of hours after completing a 20,000-kilometre journey from the UK. That’s what I mean by ‘how did my life get to this point?’ I mean, I am only about 30 kilometres away from the exact same place I thought I would be today but somehow instead I am the temporary owner of a Nissan Sunny, which sits parked outside caked in mud, and I find myself occasionally throwing logs onto a wood burner in an attempt to keep the house, where myself and Alex have somehow ended up in, warm. I am not altogether sure why we ended up staying here. We just decided to take a left turn off the coastal road a few minutes after the yellow-eyed penguins failed to show up at Nuggets Point. I can hardly blame them. Every time we went for a brief hike today it was a relief to get back inside the car as promptly as possible away from the driving rain and gusting wind.
Of course, it is mentally therapeutic to cut yourself off from the outside world from time to time, and this cottage certainly scores highly for its cosy remoteness vibe, but I am just not sure how and why I am here at all. I know it won’t be the only time I will ask myself that question in the coming couple of months but I just felt the need to grab my netbook, start typing away and putting that thought down on digital paper now. I don’t know how the Soviets had 5- and 10-year plans as I don’t seem to be able to plan six months ahead successfully. Life can be strange and so randomly unpredictable.
RWC Daily September 12