A few days of independence on the road after a month on the bus can do dangerous things to your self-esteem. Before you know it, you start to get cocky. “We’re headed to the Catlins!” you might say. “Forests! Great surf! We’ll figure it out a ‘destination’ when we get there! No need to research or book a hostel in advance! We’re gypsies now, blowing in the wind, being spontaneous!”
Here’s why it’s not such a good idea to get so cocky so early on: the Catlins, it turns out, is a pretty vast area.
Now, you might say, “That doesn’t look so big! That looks barely the size of Staten Island!” But here’s something to remember about the Catlins and, come to think of it, about New Zealand in general: thanks to mountainous and serpentine roads, even short distances can take hours to drive, and often between turnoffs there is nothing but a few sheep and a resounding emptiness. The roads through the Catlins are tough and gravelled, the gas stations are few and far between, the largest town in the area has a population of almost 400, and the country’s notoriously shoddy cell phone service just gives up and flatlines as soon as you enter the region. In short, this is not the kind of place you want to be driving aimlessly around looking for a well stocked grocery store and an inviting hostel. No, you need to come to the Catlins with a plan.
A plan is not something we had when we headed south from Te Anau a few days ago. The woman at the car rental agency in Queenstown had told us the Catlins, in addition to being great for hiking, had “great surfing,” and we for some reason decided that that was specific enough information to go for it. By the time I discovered, after grabbing a “Catlins surf school” flyer from our hostel in Te Anau, that the sole place to surf in the Catlins was called Curio Bay, every hostel on the beach was out of vacancies. This left us swerving, slowly and pointlessly, along loosely rocky roads through the mountains of a region we didn’t know, with dangerously little petrol and no accommodation for the rapidly approaching night.
After enquiring at, I kid you not, a local tavern, we were finally able to arrange accommodation by phone at a backpacker’s hostel in Slope Point, the southernmost point in New Zealand. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived at the hostel but, based on the bullet-proof glass in front of the counter at the tavern at the look of its patrons, we weren’t optimistic.
It’s nice to be pleasantly surprised every once in a while. This hostel was brand-new, sparkling clean, and located on an actual farm. With sheep. And free instant Nescafe. It made for quite a relaxing night and the perfect jumping-off point to explore the best of the Catlins the next day.
And here, in my humble opinion, is the best thing in the Catlins:
In a little town called Papatowai, peeking over the side of a winding highway, is a permanently moored hippie van-cum-gallery called “the Lost Gypsy.” My friend Hayley and I have been joking a lot lately – positing may be a better word, actually – that we’d like to become full-time gypsies. We’re both here on year-long work visas, but are having a hard time figuring out when or where to work, what to do, and how to eventually re-adjust to sitting behind a computer screen eight hours a day. Needless to say, the words “the Lost Gypsy” beckoned us off the highway lickety split.
Inside the old green bus were all manner of mechanical and artistic contraptions, with this guy tinkering quietly away on new creations in an alcove:
Outside, for a $5 entrance fee, you could make your way through his garden of “fine acts of junk” – a ticking and winding and whirring menagerie of cogs and cranks, absurd marionnettes and optical illusions, all conceived and wired together by the lost gypsy himself. My favorite was an old-school shooting gallery rigged up with a piano instead of guns. Hit a key and see a creepy old baby doll start talking or a mechanical seagull flap his wings.
So, did we end up surfing in the Catlins? Or hiking? Or following through on even the loosest of plans we’d actually managed to make? Not exactly. But we did enjoy ourselves, even without a plan. Which was maybe the biggest relief – and the biggest surprise – of all. And the surfing, well – that came later.