It was my birthday during the middle of last week, and since I didn’t have to work I spent the day sleeping-in, drinking over-priced coffee, watching the waves break on the ragged coastline and drinking insanely over-priced beer. The night was spent tracing Venus across the sky through a pair of binoculars. It was my first birthday since we moved to Dunedin, the cultural capital of the South Island.
As the weekend rolled around I asked my wife what we should do as an extended birthday celebration. ‘Op-shopping’, the antipodean term for trawling around second hand stores looking for bargains was mentioned. The best of these op-shops usually lay out in the in the hinterlands in small country towns. Places, like in Aotaeroa, where even a black spot on the map does them the disservice of making them appear too large.
A check of the Metservice revealed a sunny weekend. We mapped some roads through the Central Otago highlands with the prospect of bargain finds, small towns, windy roads, and unseen mountains. A ‘time-out’ from all temporal concerns, which is funny to think about because living in the southern part of the South Island of New Zealand is a form of being removed from all temporal concerns anyway.
Over the course of the weekend drive, which was nearly 500km, I am not even sure if we crossed anything that could reasonably be construed to be a shopping centre. We left the South Island’s chilly coast in a small town called Ranfurly. A friend told us about a road running west called the Pig Route, connecting the chilly austere coastline with the golden-tussocked desolate remoteness of the central South Island. For long stretches the straight road was for us alone, we enjoyed the shimmering snow peaks of Mt. Aspiring national park, the gap between the tarmac and the ice filled with rolling hills and desolate pastureland.
For other parts we were surrounded by hordes of motorcyclists. Somewhere along the route was a biker’s convention. It looked to have races, plenty of booze, and the likelihood a large bonfire. I made a mental note to find out more. On we drove and stopped for a beer at a small pub. The door at the entrance had a picture of two pigs having sex. Enjoy the pig route it said. We had some drinks with the obligatory pork crackles. George’s Michael’s Faith played on the TV behind us. My wife pointed out every time they showed a close-up of his ass. No one else seemed to notice.
The occasional farmhouse sold free-range eggs and home-grown vegetables. Farmers displayed art made out of forgotten tractors and other pieces of abandoned machinery. We went past small town after small town. Some seemed to be nothing more than a pub and a 4 Corners grocery shop. We debated the merits of each town as a potential place to sleep. We drove until the sun dropped.
The night was spent in a cold campground where the thought of frostbitten extremities caused us to balk and pay for a cabin with a heater. Before dinner the lure of a large trampoline was too much and the shivers down our arms made it hard to hold the binoculars steady. We awoke to the curious sight of a car with a mounted surfboard covered in frost. The time and space were free; we traveled with the pleasure of not being sold anything.
The South Island of Aotearoa is one of the lost watery parts of the world that Ishmael longed to see. What it lacks in actionable stories it makes up for with peace and serenity. The most common twitter hashtags I follow track the beauty of the daily sunrise and the other is a local museum director who has a canny ability to predict the Aurora Australis.
Dunedin is a university town and it rides on the dreams and aspirations of a transient class of young people. You go to university, you get a job in Wellington, you get a better paying job in Melbourne, and perhaps you make it all the way to London. That is one version of the dream and it is not doubted that there are thousands more, all with the same goal: to get out. To get out from the simple, boring, parochial life offered by this small Pacific Island.
For others, simple can be good. Getting arrested in Xinjiang or spending a couple of days in the Saharan heat on the back of a coal train can do that for you. For comparison’s sake, in 2013 my birthday was spent on a long distance sleeper bus in Western China where a small child attempted to shit in a trash can and ended up splattering my bed.
No doubt those experiences have moulded the feelings around being this far down in the bottom of the world. Chaos and action are always happening somewhere, but it’s nice to spend a birthday in a beautifully remote part of the globe.