I had washed ashore on the beach at the end of the world.
That wind-whipped afternoon, the ferry crossing over the dire strait from Invercargill had been, I’d scrawled in my diary, “like the Pirate Ship” – we rose and fell with each wave, the floor splashing with spilled tea. After an hour, I slid down the jetty with a handful of hardy fishermen, spangled with sea salt.
“Welcome to Stewart Island,” said the captain, shaking hands from a fish crate.
In the half-light of Half Moon Bay, I held my breath. The harbour was a glassy grey, scattered with small boats, clinking in the ripples. On the far horizon, the sun was a low glow of unearthly light. I felt, as I always do, the tingle of the unknown.
“Marrrgaret’s place?” burred a fisherman, untangling nets. “Over the hill.”
I walked up under the scarlet splashes of pohutakawa flowers. Stewart Island was a sanctuary, and most visitors came for the rare birds, but I had another reason. My quest to photograph the lighthouses at each extremity of New Zealand had so far taken me north, to the blue-green shimmer where the Pacific meets the Tasman Sea, and east, to the white surf and wakas of the Maori East Cape. Now I was further south than most people go in their lifetime, sharing the uneven floors of Margaret’s cottage with strangers from around the world.
“Who’s up for a walk?” asked Nimrod, an Israeli solder.
“I’ll come,” said Fergus, a red-haired Scot.
We picked our way in the dark, the three of us, up Observation Rock. From here, the trees stretched all the way in silence down to the moonlit sparkle of the sea.
“There are kiwis on this island,” said Fergus, shining a torch, “We might get lucky.”
“Not tonight,” said Nimrod. “But you can sometimes see the Southern Lights,” he added.
We looked up into a swirl of star-sprinkled grey.
“Not tonight,” said Fergus, “How about a beer?”
Down in the dock, we found ourselves the sole guests of the florid, faded Pacific Palms Hotel. There was an out-of-tune piano in the corner. The lights flickered.
“I was named after a horse,” said Nimrod, after the first beer.
“I quit my job,” I said, liberated by the second.
“I left my fiancée,” said Fergus, quietly, after the third.
We toasted to everything in life we hadn’t seen yet. For an hour, underneath the world, we were all each other had.
The next morning, I found my lighthouse in a grassy sand dune. I still have the photo; but that’s not really why I travel. It’s the random truthful moments between strangers I remember best.
© Joanna Rubery 2017