Sometime before dawn, in that half light when night and day still struggle, I got up, ate breakfast and drove off; drove South on empty roads from Kaka Point into the Catlins. Mist filled the valleys and hollows, a diffuse fog with hazy boundaries, softening silhouettes, muting colours. I stopped, took a couple of photos, carried on; stopped again to photograph the old sheds filled with hay and machinery by the Owaka intersection. The sun had burned away most of the fog; the early morning light, now direct and unfiltered but still low and warm, accentuated colours and picked out details like the long, dry grass in front of a dark, doorless opening; the hard angles of an arcane farm implement; the texture of old corrugated iron, paint faded and peeling. Despite their air of age and abandonment, of countless stories and enormous possibility, the sheds projected authenticity—these were sheds in use, even if the use was infrequent.
Later that morning I drove past an older, wooden barn standing, prominent and obvious, boards broken and weathered, near the roadside. At first glance it seemed full of character, but as I drove past I realised it seemed too full of character, as if it had been left there deliberately so tourists could photograph it and exclaim, “What a wonderful old barn!” It seemed too much a statement; something left on purpose to add a complementary human element to the landscape. In a moment, my impression went from appreciation to dissatisfaction—this barn lacked the authenticity of the sheds I’d photographed earlier.
Of course, the facts are likely to be completely at odds with my impressions, and this barn might still be used for some genuine farming purpose, even if simply storing hay; and I’m sure its owner hasn’t left it standing primarily—or even at all—as something for tourists to appreciate. These were simply my impressions.
I began to wonder whether authenticity—something valued so greatly by so many people, perhaps especially tourists and travellers—is mainly a function of purpose. A shed used to support the farm, or other way of life of its owner, has an authenticity far greater than an otherwise functionless shed left standing because tourists like the look of it. At the other extreme, a shed built last year and designed impeccably for its purpose (storing equipment; shearing; workshop, etc.) may be totally functional but is largely devoid of interest—“character”, I suppose—until it has accumulated enough age and stories; until it has gathered enough dust and clutter to hide at least a few interesting things.
Perhaps you might dismiss what I’m saying as just semantics—you might argue I’m just defining words like “authenticity”, “purpose”, and “function” to suit my argument. But I don’t think I am; I’m not trying to argue a point, what I’m trying to do is explore an idea, a concept that seems real to me. Unfortunately, this requires words, and the words most useful for this already have their own meanings; meanings that differ, subtly or substantially, for everyone who uses them. This is the weakness of words. It’s also their power.
Further along the coast I stopped briefly at the Florence Hill lookout, to be instantly swarmed over by sandflies , so I continued South to Curio Bay. About once every half an hour or so, another car drove past going North; otherwise, for the first couple of hours I had the whole of the Catlins to myself—so it seemed. The crowds hadn’t arrived at Curio Bay, but by the time I left, a few people had drifted in, wandered about briefly, then left. No one seemed to take much time to feel the place, touch the land; everyone seemed to do no more than look. Briefly.
I cruised slowly to Slope Point . Several cars and campervans had already arrived, but by the time I’d organised myself, some had left, leaving me feeling relaxed and uncrowded. Then four cars arrived in convoy, and 8 people got out. They walked in pairs, side by side, like a small platoon; marched to the Lighthouse, peered over the edge of the cliff, and took turns photographing each other standing next to or leaning over the sign—“Equator: 5140 km” pointing North, “South Pole: 4803 km” pointing South. Having done Slope Point, they marched back to the cars.
I sat for a while on a small shelf just down from the edge, sometimes looking at the silhouette of Rakiura (Stewart Island)—the first time I could recall seeing it clearly—but mostly thinking about the sea, and about sitting as far South as I could go on the South Island. I’d felt something similar years ago on the Surville Cliffs, the northernmost part of the North Island. No more New Zealand out there. Now, looking South, save for a few small islands, there was nothing between me and Antarctica. Out there, only sea—the great Southern Ocean; icebergs; wild light on albatross wings; petrels; penguins; fewer and fewer whales. A vast ocean, teeming with life, much of it still unknown, most of it alien to me. Beautiful, strange—and sometimes terrifying. Below me, a deep swell rolled in, heaved and burst against the rock platform—a huge roar, an explosion of white foam, bull kelp  writhing and flailing.
The sea. Where we all came from. The mother of us all.
1. They're known elsewhere in the world as blackflies (Simuliidae). All New Zealand species belong to the genus Austrosimulium.
2. The hyperlink to Slope Point shows you where it is, but incorrectly states it's in Akaroa County (according to the site, everywhere in NZ is in Akaroa County, or in a place called "None". Yeah, right). In fact, Slope Point is in the Southland Region (here's some info about Southland's coastal environment).
3. Durvillea antarctica.
Photo 1: Female ngirungiru (miromiro in the North Island), the tomtit (Petroica macrocephala); Arthur's Pass.
Photo 2: Male rock wren, piwauwau (Xenicus gilviventris), near Sefton Biv.
Photo 3: Titipounamu, the rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris), gleaning at Arthur's Pass.
Photo 4: Jonathan browsing the hut book at Sefton Biv...
Photo 5: ... and resting in the afternoon sun; the tail of the Mt Cook Range in the distance .
Photo 6: This is usually not the weather you want to see in the mountains. Evening light on the Mt Cook and Liebig Ranges, from Sefton Biv.
Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor