Canny Southlanders know when they're on to a good thing, writes Clarke Gayford
By describing a place that exists roughly halfway between the areas of Cosy Nook and Nightcaps, the location sounds more akin to a JK Rowling novel, than a happily forgotten area down at the bottom of New Zealand.
But exist it does, down past Invercargill, through Riverton, past the turn off for Cosy Nook and inland to a roll-your-R-and-you'll-miss-it town called Tūātapere.
I have long held a deep suspicion that people in Southland deliberately spread jokes about the place as a genius bit of counter-marketing to hold on to what makes the region so special. That being wide open spaces to explore, incredible rugged wilderness, pristine coastline and very few people.
In Tūātapere, clear evidence exists of this cunning sense of humour. Here a quaint little ye olde village stands as a marketer's dream. It's the last place in the country to see the sun set each night in summer, it is surrounded by incredible mountain ranges that rear up abrasively from the flats below. Here the road simply refuses to run any further west, blocked by features like the deepest lake in New Zealand, all contained in a national park we call Fiordland.
It is the gateway to some of the best wilderness walks on Earth. But do they market any of that to the rest of New Zealand and the world? Nope, instead they sell Tūātapere as "the sausage capital of New Zealand". And as if to cement the ploy they even have a slightly enlarged specimen on display, complete with hands and a face that looks like it was made out of a large fence post that had been lying in Brian's back paddock.
Now I'll be honest, this slick bit of 1980s marketing got me good and I excitedly ordered a plate of their purported finest. New Zealand has a long fine tradition of producing incredible strings of flavoursome sausies to suit all discerning palates. I once spent 45 minutes in the Westmere butcher, frozen in place, staring into the cabinet, overwhelmed by the variety of pork-skin baggies in front of me. So to be here at the very capital of it all was going to be a treat. Forget a trip to nearby Gemstone Bay, where I could spend time fossicking for special sparkly stones among the rocks, or heading out for a surf, or casting a line from shore. I was all in on some processed meat delights.
Like a well-executed punchline, that I swear locals must be in on, my mixed plate of the town's most promoted asset arrived, sat squarely down in front of me, jumbled together on a wilting bed of chips.
I excitedly asked the waitress which flavour was which. The shrug of the shoulders and exclamation of, "I dunno" was offered along with a greasy bit of A4 paper containing a few written descriptions of what "might" be on my plate. My waitress couldn't be sure.
Now I'll admit my eyesight isn't quite as sharp as it once was, but not one person at our table of eight could tell the difference between the lightly toasted and slightly sad looking offerings in front of me. A careful dissection of one, however, revealed mustard seeds, hurrah! Variety. It sat boldly apart in appearance but sadly not in taste. There was a strong suspicion that the other five snags were in fact identical.
For me, as a blown-in Aucklander, having visited Southland at least five times in the past year or so, often arriving from the claggy mug of the north, I have to say that my absolute favourite thing about the place is the special air that makes you feel truly alive when you get outdoors. There is nothing that compares to the in-your-face blast of roaring 40s salt and alpine blended air, travelling not around but through you. It reconnects you back to your place in the environment. I absolutely love it.
Now I could waste my last words, opining/remonstrating/chastising Tūātapere for its abject failure to see the woods for the trees of the world-class features it has. But I've decided that … that's the whole point. The fact that the town still chooses to promote something which it might have been once good at in 1880, over, any of the other things it has going for it, actually serves a subtle double purpose. It not only helps the place be overlooked, and so retaining its special charm, but it also beautifully understates what it really has, which as we all know is a time-honoured tradition of the south. I for one can't wait to get back there and have another plate of the best underwhelming sausages I've ever eaten.
Moving Houses, Clarke Gayford's new TV series about Kiwis relocating homes across New Zealand, premieres tonight (October 12) on TVNZ 1
Check alert level restrictions and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz