At breakfast, Dawn shows us a map and encourages us to take the Southern Scenic Route to Invercargill. Dawn is wise. This route will lead us to the ocean. As we leave the mountains behind, the landscape flattens with multitudes of grazing sheep scattered about like cotton balls on a pool table. I leave the highway when a sign indicates – Clifden Suspension Bridge. An engineering marvel? Not really, but an exquisite piece of work made of concrete, steel, and wood one hundred and fifteen years ago. It combines grace and substance and utility, while avoiding any trace of artifice. It is a beautiful thing. The Bridge carries only pedestrian traffic nowadays, humans and ungulates.
Dawn pointed out a microscopic coastal village called Cosy Nook and recommended its utter picturesqueness. We find it. Four or five tiny shacks with smoke stacks and flowerpots ring a shallow, rocky cove with crashing surf and blue mountains in the far distance. Then, in Riverton we stop for lunch at Mrs. Clark’s and enjoy a perfect meat pie and two perfect fish cakes.
Entry into Invercargill is dispiriting. The sunny day has turned leaden. Big box stores and derelict property line the congested four-lane thoroughfare. Flat terrain and streets in a grid are cold comfort. The Railway Hotel is charming from the outside, all Edwardian brick and white trim. Inside, the operative word is ‘nauseating’. It’s like a Glade factory exploded. Rank, chemically floral intensity. Something must have gone terribly wrong.
We drop our stuff. “Let’s go for a walk, maybe we can find some those tomato-shaped squeeze bottles. I see them fuckin’ everywhere, except in your neighborhood retail outlet.”
We head up Dee Street, a main drag of sorts, under the arcade of sad, under-used buildings. Tomato squeeze bottles are found. We buy out the store (except for one). I recall that there’s a tuatara museum in Invercargill, in Queens Park, which is over that way, I say, waving my hand. GPS is, of course, no help. Looking down streets, we see patches of green, and following deductive whatnot, we locate the Park and the Museum, which contains the nation’s only tuatara breeding program. The one in Picton probably came from here.
Glass enclosures house I don’t know how many of these reptiles, from tiny four-inchers to Henry, a three-footer and, at 130 years old, reputedly the oldest tuatara in captivity. Henry’s story plays on a video nearby. It’s captivating. Henry was a total badass, the Tuatara Rex. Tuataras are generally mellow, straightforward reptiles. Not Henry. He bit the tail off the first female he encountered. For some reason, they then put him in with another tuatara named Albert, who after Henry subsequently mauled, required stitches. Why was Henry so mean, when other tuatara seemed to cotton to nookie? X-rays revealed Henry was suffering from a tumor, which subsequent tests revealed to be cancerous. His whole outlook on life changed after the growth was removed. Henry is now dateable, but still not suitable for long-term companionship.
After dinner, the hotel still smells like ten thousand ruptured air fresheners. Not on the second floor where our rooms are, Thank God.