Inspired by that advertising tourism campaign of the
1980s, ''Don't leave town 'til you've seen the country'',
Shane Gilchrist takes a trip along the Southern Scenic Route
and meets a few of the locals, including a couple of dogs, a
fat cat and some whistling frogs ...
It's 8.30pm on a Monday in Riverton. Or, to put it another
way, it's really quiet.
A black dog does a lap of the children's playground at
Taramea Bay. Perhaps hoping for something spilt from small
hands earlier in the day, it presses its nose to the grass
near a bandstand and recreation ground where, in the
post-Christmas holiday hubbub, axemen send splinters flying.
The pressure valve of school exams released, teenage boys
wander along the beach, their quiet laughter mingling with
the sound of small waves stirring pebbles as, in the
distance, shards of light play against the sands of Oreti
Tonight, even the gulls seem calm.
It's the same the next morning. Out the back of Howell's
Point, where southern swells often brood and lurch along
Foveaux Strait, there is barely a breeze to stir the deep
Still, if Gollum were to prefer the sea to a dark underground
pool, then this would likely be the place.
Riverton sits, roughly, at the halfway point of the Southern
Scenic Route, which last month turned 25 with a ceremony in
the western Southland town of Tuatapere, where the idea to
connect various scenic drives was first conceived in 1985 and
became official in November 1988.
Back then, the route ran from Tuatapere to Owaka. Now, it
stretches in a rough half-circle from Queenstown to Dunedin,
or vice versa, encompassing Te Anau (and Milford Sound),
Manapouri, Tuatapere, Invercargill, the Catlins, Taieri Mouth
and many places in between and off to the side.
According to Venture Southland statistics (based on a
combination of traffic road counts, estimates made in the
University of Otago's Catlins Tourism Strategy 2003,
Department of Conservation track counts as well as anecdotal
comments), the Southern Scenic Route attracts about
120,000-150,000 visitors to the Catlins each year.
All sorts of visitors ...
In a wood-panelled room redolent with maritime vibe at Te
Hikoi Southern Journey, aka the museum at Riverton, a
15-minute film tells other tales of travel, in particular how
Maori then Europeans came to the area. So, too, did Chinese.
More than 500 of them, in fact. They arrived in search of
gold in the 1880s, living at Round Hill, or Long Hilly
(''Long Hee-lee''), where a walking track now offers visitors
some insight into an extensive network of water races and
''They had their own town called Canton, complete with joss
houses and gambling dens,'' Te Hikoi manager Carole Power
''The Chinese market is increasing on the Scenic Route so we
are about to embark on a huge change. We are going to
recreate that village within Te Hikoi. And we are doing it
because of the Southern Scenic Route.
''Since the route was continued through to Queenstown (the
resort town became part of the Southern Scenic Route in
2011), we are getting more travellers, many of whom are
educated and interested in taking their time,'' she says.
''You always assume that those travelling on the route are
mainly in campervans. But people are now travelling in cars
more. They are prepared to use motels and backpackers.
"Of course, the Southern Scenic Route doesn't have the big
busloads, such as between Queenstown and Te Anau, but people
do know about it.
''We wouldn't be viable without the route. But you also have
to have places where people want to stop.''
A gem of a place ...
One such place is Gemstone Beach, near Orepuki, where a
scattering of campervans and cars have pulled up, as has a
quad-bike laden with equipment that gives an indication as to
the pastime of at least one older gentleman who lives in the
Gemstone Beach, home to jasper (blood red), hydrogrossular
(waxy greenish white-yellow), epidote (apple green) and rare
sapphires (blue), sits roughly halfway between Riverton and
Tuatapere but, more significantly (in geological terms), is
less than 200km from where the Australian and Pacific plates
About 20 million years ago, the Australian Plate began to
dive beneath the Pacific Plate, a process that has resulted
in volcanic eruptions (including 150,000 years ago at
Solander Island, or Hautere, 70km to the southwest) and, more
recently, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on July 15, 2009, on the
boundary in Fiordland.
Yet the fossicking is no longer limited to the beaches in the
area: with assistance from the Institute of Geological and
Nuclear Sciences, Te Hikoi is soon to open an interactive
''The only other museum in New Zealand working with GNS is Te
Papa,'' Carole says with a measure of pride.
Pavlova, pikelets and vinyl platters ...
The record player at Tuatapere's Yesteryears Museum Cafe is
spinning Jim Reeves' I Love You Because, just one song
on the many dozens of albums stacked alongside an assortment
of memorabilia amassed by generations of residents in the
A Chinese family and other visitors sit in an addition to the
original building, once the town's bakery. Some are served
Devonshire tea, another a plate bearing pavlova, the idea of
proprietor Helen McKay, who opened the business eight years
''We had all this stuff at home, taking up space in a
bedroom, which we needed to use, so we decided to buy this
place, then move the stuff into it and decide what to do with
"It has been really popular,'' Helen says, pointing to an old
clock, cast-iron pots, fine china and an 1870 coal range, on
which she occasionally demonstrates her pikelet-making skills
Helen says the inclusion in 2011 of Queenstown on the route
helped boost visitor numbers, particularly Asian tourists and
''an awful lot of baby-boomers''.
''It tapered right off at the start of the recession, which
is not helping. There was a 50% drop-off in Brits, a 25% drop
in Australian visitors. It is slowly coming back.''
A foodie, a Frenchwoman and a feline ...
Drive a few hundred metres along the road at Tuatapere, over
the Waiau River and past the butchery sign boasting of
''world-famous'' sausages, and there is the Last Light Lodge,
where a rather large, rather fluffy, black and white cat
reclines in the afternoon sun.
Its languid meows are occasionally drowned out by the rumble
of a stock truck, a reminder this town services the needs of
farmers as well as those from further afield.
Last Light owner Craig Rutland had an idea, arguably
counterintuitive, that the recession might help boost the
number of New Zealand visitors to the area, the
belt-tightening perhaps reviving echoes of that tourism
campaign of the 1980s, ''Don't leave town 'til you've seen
Having spent 26 years cooking meals in various establishments
in Timaru, he bought a camping ground and buildings on the
edge of the Western Southland town.
''I hadn't heard of Tuatapere, but went down one weekend and
saw this place on the road between Te Anau and Invercargill,
with beautiful bush, coastlines, walking tracks, lakes and
rivers. I put an offer in and they accepted.
''But I hadn't figured on the cost of fixing the place up,
which was a killer. I almost went broke after the first 12
"Eventually, I began to crawl my way back,'' Craig says of
his business, which includes a café/restaurant, a lodge and
backpackers as well as sites for campervans and tents.
''It's very seasonal. And that was a drawcard for me. If I
had a café in Dunedin or Timaru, I'd still be busy in winter.
"But here, it's very farming dependent; in September, when
it's calving or lambing season, it's absolutely dead so I can
sit in the kitchen and cruise. In summer, I work hard.
''Supposedly, 300 tourist vehicles travel past this corner
every day in summer. A lot of people are coming through here
from Te Anau to Invercargill.
"We need to capture the imagination of the general public to
want to stay here. There is a lot for them to see and do.
''I was thinking backpacker or motor-camp style would have a
revival. But this season that has gone the other way. The
places I've heard doing well are higher-end bed and
breakfasts catering to international travellers.
''So it hasn't worked out exactly as I imagined it, but we
are ticking over. I thought, `it's got to happen sometime'.''
Other things have, however. A couple of years ago, Craig met
a ''lovely French girl'', Violaine, who was on holiday. She
is still there.
Whistling winds, whistling frogs ...
Even on an overcast day, the cemetery at Waikawa, towards the
bottom of the Catlins, offers a pretty view out over the
It's an altogether different mood from the wild stretch of
coast just around the corner where, past the tiny township's
museum and information centre (well worth a visit), the
Pacific Ocean threatens to erase the Jurassic-era fossils at
Further down, at Slope Point, the southernmost place in the
South Island, the best evidence of prevailing wind can be
found not out to sea - nearly 50 ships have been wrecked off
the wild Catlins coastline since 1840 - but in the occasional
stands of macrocarpa and old man pine trees, the limbs of
which have been blasted into various twisted angles.
Head into the damp native bush of the Catlins, however, and
the breeze dissipates, the combined burble of birdsong and
waterfalls offering a gentler, perhaps more meditative,
A few kilometres from McLean Falls, at the Whistling Frog
Café and Bar, another animal is stealing the show. Sonic, a
small white dog, struts up to a couple of guests who, having
entered the premises bearing what they believe to be a
child's toy, are informed the item is, in fact, one of
several owned (and often discarded) by a canine whose
cocksure attitude belies his size.
Named after the amphibians that inhabit the area (the brown
tree frog, Litoria ewingii, sometimes referred to as the
whistling frog, is an introduced species), the Whistling Frog
is a family affair, involving proprietors Lynn and Paul
Bridson, daughters Michelle and Nicole and her partner, Tom
Peake, who has been largely responsible for ''adding a bit of
flair'' to the food.
Prompted by a 2003 University of Otago report on the
viability of tourism in the Catlins, Lynn and Paul decided to
expand their existing accommodation business, McLean Falls
Motels and Holiday Park.
They set up the café, now in its seventh year, and purchased
and renovated a range of buildings, including the former
Borland Lodge, the top floor of the Luxmore Hotel and the
shower block from the Karitane Motor Camp, as well as
building higher-end chalets.
''A huge amount of energy went into doing it, but we are on
the happy side now,'' Lynn reflects.
The couple, who also own a 350ha farm, 100ha of which is in
native bush, say all those plans would probably have been put
on hold had a 23km gravel section of the Southern Scenic
Route south of Papatowai not been sealed in 2006.
''A lot of tourists weren't allowed here by rental car
companies,'' Paul says.
''When it was announced in 2005 they would seal the road ...
well, the comparison is like night and day.
"The secret is to slow people down enough so they will
actually stay a few days.''
Nicole chips in: ''For the first time, Tom and I kept the
café open over winter and it went really well, although some
days we would do just one coffee and the next we'd have 50
A passion for the past...
There are some
decidedly non-human sounds emanating from the confines of the
men's toilets at the Owaka Museum.
They are, in fact, the melodies of various birds; replayed
through discreetly placed speakers. It sure beats elevator
Certainly, there's nothing mundane about this facility, which
reflects both a passion for the past and a strong community
The complex, which includes the Catlins Information Centre,
the Owaka Library as well as a community gallery and museum
shop, is a ''big deal'' to both those who live in the town
and others, says museum director Kaaren Mitcalfe, who moved
from Hawkes Bay to take up the position when the facility
opened in October 2007.
''It is very much a community museum, reliant on volunteers
and run on the smell of an oily rag.
There are actually six museums in the Clutha district, which
has a population of about 16,000 people.
Heritage is a big passion for each community.
''It's been a great journey to come in and work with a group
of people who are so community-minded.
They are so passionate about history. And a lot of that
history is in their heads, has been passed down through
We are doing a project filming oral histories. We are
conscious we are racing against time.
''We want to encourage all visitors who come in the door to
visit the museum as well and go away enriched about this part
of New Zealand.''
Enriched. It's a good word.