“Aotearoa” is the Maori name for New Zealand and means “Land of the long white cloud.” Flying toward Christchurch to begin my two weeks in the country, some of that emblematic veil parted enough for me to see through to the jutting Southern Alps beneath. We were descending now, so I really needed to get started on my customs declaration form and begin internally debating with myself and justifying my answers (“Well, what is a true wilderness area anyway? Surely I haven’t been in any of those...”), but I was transfixed: the most superlative-worthy scenery I’d ever had the fortune of appreciating was there before my eyes – I’d made it!
That first night I CouchSurfed with an exceptionally generous and easygoing host named Paul (other than that and three nights on the Kepler Track I stayed in hostels). Paul picked me up from the airport and took me on a quick tour around Christchurch, describing as we went various points of interest like the quietly beautiful Hagley Park, and giving me a brief rundown of the 2010 earthquake – something I hadn’t understood the lasting impact of until I saw how in shambles the heart of the city still is five years later. Shipping crates filled with gravel rise stacked beside buildings as security in case they collapse; Christchurch Cathedral stands battered and propped up by scaffolding supporting the gaping open end of its main hall. We parked and walked around the remains of the business district, and I was struck by how eerily quiet it was: 7PM on a pleasant Wednesday evening and apart from us, a lone elderly tourist taking photos, and a man in tattered clothes shuffling down an alley, New Zealand’s most populous South Island city was a ghost town.
Feeling I’d seen enough of Christchurch, I was glad that at 8:15AM the next morning I’d be boarding the TranzAlpine train to cross the width of the South Island to arrive at Greymouth on the opposite coast that afternoon. I was up at 6:15AM and was excited to take advantage of New Zealand’s unique quirk of being as far ‘east’ as you can get without crossing the International Date Line, and thus is the first place on the planet you can see the sunrise. Unfortunately the white cloud’s longness from the previous day had continued into this one, so I wasn’t met with much more than a gradually lightening grayness. Indomitably cheerful because, well, I was in New Zealand (!) I got to the train station courtesy of Paul driving me on his way to work, and soon was headed west across the Canterbury Plains toward the mountains I’d glimpsed the day before.
The TranzAlpine – as the affected hipness of its name suggests – is a scenic (as opposed to strictly transportational) ride and as such is targeted at tourists. Soon though the mental imagery that its name conjured for me of frosted tips and Aeropostale was swept away by the world-class visual feast that emerged from the fog as the morning sun began to burn its way through to patches of cobalt sky. Around each bend was an alluvial plain framing a Gatorade ‘Frost’ -colored river, or a mountain receding into wispy clouds behind dazzlingly golden flowers on gorse bushes in my foreground. This time of year was early enough in Spring that the loftier summits still had snow – that delicious accent of lightness catching peaks’ multicolored shadows.
Five hours after departing Christchurch – though it felt much shorter – we pulled in to Greymouth, and it was off to the next item on my itinerary: glow worms!
Having only a half hour between arrival and the departure for the glow worm tour, I rushed to the tour company and checked in, and was soon pulling on various neoprene wetsuit components. I’d like to tell you that tubing and glow worms was sick – because that was my expectation given its excellent TripAdvisor reviews – but it and the accompanying zipline they upsold me on was, in a word, lame… Romleins as a rule generally find more enjoyment in DIY fun than touristy things, and Greymouth was a good illustration of this: getting pushed on an inner-tube into a narrow cave too look up at small lighted specks on the ceiling – meh… Borrowing a rusty POS bike and exploring abandoned boats in Greymouth’s harbor then watching the ineffably spectacular West Coast sunset from the beach – five stars.
In Greymouth I rented (in UK English parlance, “hired,” which never ceases to crack me up: “Ah yes, hello. I’m hiring for the position of transporting myself to the southernmost region of your fine nation, and am wondering if any of your fleet of vehicles would be interested in applying.”) a six-speed manual sky-blue Toyota Corolla hatchback. In the course of our travels together I christened her “Wendy,” for her being blue, and the general Neverland-esque nature of our adventures. Throwing on some Howard Shore, I mashed the accelerator to the floor and allowed myself to be swept up in the giddy ‘pinch-me’ reality of driving through Middle Earth as I headed south down the west coast for the glaciers (“glay-see’-ehrs”) of Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park.
Breathless from the thrill of piloting my delightfully quick Corolla through the curves of State Highway 6, I arrived at the trailhead for Franz Josef glacier in just over three hours. While the drive was beautiful, admittedly I was expecting more coastal views: the road does at points edge tantalizingly close to the ocean, but is still just far enough away that you’re left with mostly just sheep pasture to look at. By the time I arrived at Franz Josef a light rain had started to fall, and by the time I’d made the 5.4km round trip walk to the base of the glacier and back, it had picked up to a steady drizzle. Fortunately for me, I was spending most of the day in the shelter of a car anyway, and by the time I’d driven down the access road to look at Fox Glacier and resumed my progress south, the rain had for the most part cleared up. Miraculously, even with my trip to the notoriously wet Milford Sound (which receives on average a staggering seven meters – or 270 inches – of rain annually), this was the only day of my two weeks with any appreciable precipitation.
Because of a planning error on my part and only looking at as-the-crow-flies map distance in preparation for this drive terminating for the day in Mount Cook village, I’d neglected to note that getting to Mount Cook from the other side of, well, Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park entails taking a massive arc to the south past Lake Wanaka and then back up through the adorably-named “Twizel.” Fortunately I like driving, and with a total miles clocked for the day at 412, I pulled into Aoraki / Mount Cook NP just as the last light of sunset was fading from the the park’s namesake and – at 12,218 feet – New Zealand’s tallest mountain.
The next day was, as it occurred to me around noon, Halloween. Sunny and 68 degrees F with lilacs blooming didn’t really feel like Halloween, so the antipodes’ lack of particular excitement around the holiday seemed in keeping with this. Following a hike up Hooker Valley to stand in awe of Aoraki – light reflecting off faces of blindingly white snow scooped and scalloped over purple underlying rock like a gigantic meringue – I redlined Wendy like a six-speed bat outta hell to the nearby Tasman Glacier. Maybe it was just the mild sunstroke I was suffering from, but I was underwhelmed; mostly I noted that the Tasman Glacier looked like it needed a bath, and after a quick self-timer selfie doing a handstand in front of the landscape, jogged back down to the carpark.
Queenstown was to be my base for the rest of the trip so I was eager to make it there, but on the way I stopped to appreciate the impossible turquoise glow of glacial Lake Pukakki (the setting for ‘Lake-town’ in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug for you nerds out there). I parked and was planning on frolicking through the grassy sheep pasture down to the beach I’d spotted, but on closer inspection noticed the gate was unlocked. So, Thrifty if you’re out there reading this: not that I would ever think of taking my Toyota Corolla off-roading, but if I did, that would have been an excellent spot to do so.
The reception guy at the Mount Cook hostel had told me, “It’s pretty cold this time of year, but I guess you could swim,” and in that moment I knew it wasn’t a choice. Bracing myself for the shock, I peeled off my rank socks, took a deep breath, and marched it. It occurred to me – as the first sensation of what I was entering into began to be registered by my nervous system – that when the hostel receptionist perceptively factored in, “This time of year,” he was referring to, “The time of year when the glaciers melt enough to fill up Lake Pukaki with ice water.” I swam around til the needles driving into every square inch of my submerged skin and sensation of my chest being ripped apart grew a tad too much and repaired to the sunny beach. It was refreshing, to say the least.
Perked up by my glacial dip, I was set to drive the two and a half hours to Queenstown, and made it to my hostel (‘Bumbles Backpackers’) by 9PM. The whole of New Zealand has a population only slightly larger than Melbourne, and about 75% of those live in the smaller North Island; these first few days of my trip I was wondering if I’d made a mistake in deciding to travel solo for this long...was I going to get lonely after two weeks? Queenstown assured me this wasn’t to be the case: when I showed up to the hostel there was a lively party happening in the lounge and I – the American?! – was the only one not in costume (remember, this is still Halloween). Fortunately the one other American at the party, dressed as a firefighter, had a backup(?) costume as a pirate, which consisted of a hat, eyepatch, and gun (later in the night I heard one of the Scottish guys mutter, “An American would have a gun…”), and was generous enough to outfit me with these. Though I was pretty well wiped out after having hiked eight miles and driven 140 that day, I realized I had no option but to rally and get amongst this legendary Queenstown nightlife. Sunday morning at 5AM was the Rugby Grand Final game between Australia and New Zealand, and for a while it was looking like a reasonable possibility that I’d be up to see the fervor that is kiwis and their passion for rugby, but alas: I passed out just short of that event.
Sunday, November 1st, it was up to go check out Milford Sound. Which – as I hinted at previously – I enjoyed excellent weather for. My 12km kayak trip there with Rosco’s Milford Kayaks made up for the tackiness and banality of Greymouth’s glow worm incident: it was a small group (just a couple, myself, and the guide), our guide was excellent at what he did and balanced perfectly providing us information and letting us do our thing and explore, and it was challenging enough physically to be rewarding. The couple were from Upstate NY, and after a few minutes of conversation Sue and I found out we’d graduated from the same college! Potsdam Proud! I can’t get away from those people… On the kayak itself we saw fur seals, Fiordland crested penguins, and of course the iconic Stirling Falls and Mitre Peak. Despite fingers stiff from the cold I somehow I managed to avoid dropping my camera in the 500 meter-deep water and got a few shots from the experience.
I left the tour with just enough daylight to walk to the base of the other main waterfall of the fiord: Bowen Falls. Skirting some razorwire I told myself was just there to keep the city kids out, I trotted along the darkening path to the base of the 162m cascade. Wind from the movement of water downwards pressed away from the base like a helicopter taking off. I stood in the blowing mist long enough to get a long exposure shot of the falls, then started back toward the hostel. On the way I saw the most perfect climbing tree, and while light was failing fast, decided to take the opportunity to ascend above the rest of the canopy for a panoramic view of the fiord, with the peaks catching the last sweet rosy light of day.
While taking it all in, a tui bird started making its bizarrely wonderful R2D2 call in the branches above me. I did my best at mimicking it’s hissing cough and following string of flutey warbles, and was rewarded by what I’d like to think was a brief dialogue between man and bird. It occurred to me that this or the “titipounamou” would have to be my favorite NZ birds; the tui for its song, the titipounamou for its miniature-football shape and immensely satisfying name. Here whilst basking in a “I’m actually in New Zealand…” moment, some fused synapse of adulthood deep within my frontal lobe whispered that since A) It was about pitch black out now, B) I was thirty feet off the ground in a tree, C) No one on the planet had a clue where I was, and D) I was behind a razor-wire -gated area, maybe it would be prudent to start making my way back.
So I did. Scraping together my remaining food supplies (I’d foolishly hoped there would be a grocery store in Milford Sound), I managed a decent dinner and collapsed into bed.
From there it was back to Queenstown, hiking to Marian Lake along the way. A quick overnight in yet another backpackers (featuring my treating myself to a proper homemade dinner of strip steak and sumptuous salad), then off by bus to Te Anau to start the four-day Kepler Track, but with that exception the rest of my NZ adventures revolved around Queenstown: ‘The Adrenaline Capital of the World.’
Hiking in New Zealand is called ‘tramping,’ which I got a lot of mileage out of in cracking myself up. November 4th through the 7th I ‘tramped’ my way along the 37 miles of one of the nine ‘Great Walks’ in NZ – staying in DOC (Department of Conservation) huts along the way. For $54NZD a night and the necessity to book out weeks in advance, some might expect more in the way of amenities than the sparse huts had to offer, but you don’t come here for chocolate on your pillow, you come for waking up to the sight of clouds settled over lake Te Anau and you lost in the ethereal solitude of an alpine wonderland. Because I carried my three-pound Rebel T3i every step of those 37 miles and don’t want to see that effort go to waste, I’ll let the images do the rest of the talking for this part of my journey.
Somehow my unshowered, scruffy, self only had to wait about seven minutes outside of Te Anau to hitch a ride back to Queenstown Saturday, and once there schlepped my gear to the third hostel.
Jonesin’ for a change from my freeze-dried astronaut diet of the past four days, my still unshowered, scruffy, self made tracks for the famous Fergburger, and smashed of these beef masterpieces I’d heard so much about. Buzz around Fergburger is not without substance: their burgers. Are. Legit.
The next four days in Queenstown were a blur: next thing I knew I was sitting in the airport reminiscing back on bungee jumping and downhill mountain biking and yoga and the botanical gardens and stargazing and painting and wine tasting and LOTR film-site touring and thinking I’d broken a rib after getting bucked off that mechanical bull at Cowboys …
Looking down at the innumerable snowy peaks one last time, I tried to soak it all in. I closed my eyes and imagined myself sitting in my drab Saratoga office; then opened them again and let the sweet depth and dappled contours of technicolor ridges and valleys become gradually obscured from view – one long, tufted, white cloud at a time. I’m not sure when I’ll be back...and that bruised rib from the mechanical bull’s almost completely healed now, but I’ve got a journal full of ramblings, 1285 photos, and that vision of sunlit mountains disappearing into the clouds seared into my memory to hold me over till next time.