From Queenstown we drove south again to Invercargill, almost the southern tip of the island, where we lunched. There is a more direct way inland, but the route via Invercargill is famous as the Southern Scenic Route, rolling through the Catlins and taking you near New Zealand’s southernmost point. Invercargill is a sprawling, grey conurbation without anything very much to recommend it, but it does have a few decent cafes. We also took the chance to stop above a spectacular south-facing bay and gaze out, knowing that nothing stood between us and Antarctica but open sea. After that, we spent the afternoon driving through the Catlins, an area of rolling hills by the coast, before arriving in the student city of Dunedin in the late afternoon.
We were staying in a B&B just outside Dunedin’s central octagon, and at the top of a steep hill. There are some beautiful outdoorsy things to do along the Otago Peninsula, but for once we weren’t there to do them but to return to more urban pursuits, such as art. We visited the Dunedin Art Gallery, which differed from most by not having a permanent collection. Its current exhibits included sculptures made from lacquered corrugated iron and fluorescent lights, and an exhibit of composite photos set in American suburbia. After that, it was to the Otago Museum, which harbours an enormous, Victorian-style collection of taxidermied animals, patiently laid out according to families and phyla. Elsewhere in the museum, there were exhibits on Maori culture and their legends about the formation of New Zealand. We only spent a full day in the city before moving on, though. On the drive to Christchurch, we stopped over in Oamaru to visit Steampunk World, and to those of you who don’t know what “steampunk” means, I’m afraid you’re going to have to google it yourself. The… exhibit is a small and very odd collection of kitsch, rusting machinery, and grotesque dolls, but Loz enjoyed himself.
In Christchurch, I spotted and zeroed in on one thing in the guidebook: the International Antarctic Exhibition. I had never realised that the American, British and New Zealand expeditions to Antarctica all base themselves out of Christchurch, and there is a huge exhibition building dedicated to this purpose out by Christchurch Airport. I love everything about Antarctica, and I have no idea why. I think it’s the harshness, the enormous distance away it is from everything I’m familiar with, and of course the scientific fascination. The first exhibit we hurried to was the one that gives you the chance to experience, in part, an Antarctic storm; you step into snow in a room kept at around -8C, and then the lights dim and the wind rises and rises until you’re experiencing a windchill of below -20C. A 4D show gives you the experience of travelling on a ship through icebergs, including rocking and the occasional spurt of icy water in your face. The centre has extensive exhibits about Antarctica’s geology, flora and fauna, and the environmental research that takes place there, as well as, of course, what life is like year-round. As a finishing touch, the centre has a troupe of blue penguins. I loved it.
The next day we were on the road once more, heading back gradually towards our ferry to the North Island. Three hours’ drive brought us to the coastal town of Kaikoura, which is famous for its marine wildlife. We had an afternoon whale-watching expedition booked, but stormy weather at sea had led to cancellation, so we crossed our fingers, rescheduled for early the next morning, and retired to our motel room. Sadly, the next morning the whales had once again declined to play ball, and we had to be in Picton for a 2pm ferry, so we hit the road, arriving in Picton three hours ahead of schedule. We filled the time by a visit to the local aquarium and a hike out to Bob’s Beach along the edges of the harbour. And there we were; done with the South Island, after looping right from north to south along both coasts. Now for the North Island: volcanoes and hobbits await.