Friday, January 14, 2011

Curio Bay, NZ: Catlin Treasures

The further south we traveled, the more frequent were those, Kiwis and tourists alike, who said "visit The Catlins".  We decided to go for it, but it seemed forever to get here because of that pesky leg injury.  But we cautiously entered the region after the layover in the "hospital hostel" in Owaka by doing a few short cycle days.

Beaches, rocky headlands, good surfing, and remoteness are all part of the character of the place.  Many of the small roads were unpaved until just a few years ago, so there currently is a perceptible increase in tourist services development.  But much of what is here is still on the minimalist side, and there are broad areas of rural, isolated country and a bit of the beaten track of the standard tourist with limited time.

A half day of cycling south of Owaka brought us to windswept Tautuku Bay. the wind was blowing so hard the waves were being pushed back as they came into shore.

A minor stream crossing and a roll across the sand found a free campsite well protected from the wind and with an ocean view.
Our recollection from looking at a geologic map of the area was the "basin and range" character of steeply dipping sedimentary rocks on the highlands separated by valleys.  So traveling south to our destination of Curio Bay included a few steep climbs, which got the leg to barking.   But the sun was shining, and any day that happens is a cause for joy.

We were racing to get to Curio Bay by early afternoon, because at low tide petrified trees are exposed on the rocks in the tidal zone.  And somewhere on the second to last grade there was a snap, and I no longer could shift gears.  We pulled to a grassy stretch of ground, and spent the next hour trying to thread a spare cable through the shifting mechanism.  Let it be known, the wire cutters on a Leatherman tool are insufficient for trimming bike cables.  We finally knocked on the door of the house that we were parked in front of and begged for a more adequate tool.  Within seconds the homeowner retrieved a cutter from the front floor of her car (only in the land of infinite fences -- her partner works as a fence builder).  We spent another half hour chatting it up about local politics, bike travel, and the uselessness of television while John finished the job.  But the shifter worked only for three gears.  Enough to get us to our immediate destination, but not to the bike shop, at least 100 km away.  And since our new friend also works for the local tourist information center, we got the scoop on catching a bus to a town where we could get the shifter serviced.

It finally was late afternoon when we arrived at Curio Bay.  The tide was still out, the sun was still shining, and the petrified forest was beautifully exposed and lit for our exploration.

Tree trunks are scattered like pick-a-sticks.  The forest was flooded by volcanic debris and covered and silicified during the Jurassic period.

Tree rings can still be seen in some of the logs exposed in cross section.

Stumps of the felled trees pop up everywhere.

Many of the stumps have a cylindrical core of silicified wood, surrounded by a cone of ash.
Curio Bay also has rare wildlife -- Hector's Dolphins, Southern Right Whales, and also Yellow-Eyed Penguins.  The birds waddle up on shore in the late afternoon.  Not to look at petrified trees, but rather to feed their young in nests in the bush on the shore.

The penguins at Curio Bay are remarkably tolerant of human observers.

Ready to dive in!
We stayed one night at Curio Bay, and made arrangements to take a tourist bus into Invercargill, the largest town in the Southland.  The transportation system moving tourists around the country reaches even the loneliest places, which was fortunate for us.

Waiting for the Bottom Bus to take us to Invercargill.
Although we would have preferred to ride the distance, it was not sensible with my injury to try with only three gears.  We traveled in three hours what would have taken us two days, and missed the challenge of 100 km/hr headwinds.  We hired seats on the Bottom Bus, one of the many transport companies with vehicles that seem all too frequent and pass all too close to us on the New Zealand roads.  And this was a cultural experience in itself.

The driver stopped once along the way and walked to the back of the bus to make sure the bike as still there.  My bike got to ride inside.

Our bus was occupied by 14 other passengers. They all joked around like friends, which apparently is what they were since they had been traveling on this bus together for a couple of weeks since Auckland. They were mostly girls from the UK in their twenties, all with iPods as fashion accessories, and more interested in flirting with the bus driver and playing DJ for tunes on the bus speakers than looking at the landscape. When asked if they wanted to stop one more time to look for penguins, they replied with a "no, not really...they are cute and all, but we just want to get to the hostel". So we sat in the back of the bus, craning out the window to see every rise and fall of the terrain we could have biked, with little interaction with our fellow travelers. The contrast of our travel mode and experience was more stark than the generation gap.  We felt affirmed that we are, indeed, rich.
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