Pacifica Journals Part V: The Land of the Kiwi

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Mar 6: Queenstown

Our flight to New Zealand is packed with a herd of Korean tourists. Steph is almost stampeded when a second check-in line suddenly opens. They have strange etiquette (standing during seatbelt signs, not following instructions, etc) and even the jolly Kiwi flight attendants are muttering.

On the ground in the terminal we navigate customs and the strict bio-security checkpoints. They even inspect my hiking boots to check for pods and seeds, foreign invaders of their isolated ecology.

We pick up a brand new Corolla hatchback as it starts to drizzle, drive the darkened surface streets of suburban Christchurch to our hotel. Hilariously, the Koreans are checking into our same hotel, piling out of their bus, and Steph and I can’t stop cracking up.

We get out of town by 11:00 AM the next day. The two lane highway quickly leaves the workings of civilization behind.

The country is made of rolling hills, green and dotted with off-white Merino sheep, fences and hedgerows of thick evergreens, and a row of mountains far to the west. It reminds me very much of Montana, the big sky of light cloud and a deep blue bordered by a ring of peaks.

We stop at Lake Tekapo for lunch and a pee. Beyond the highway lies a sea of turquoise, windblown and chopped. The force of the gale is intense. Steph and I lean into it, shuffling through the grass past gulls, their eyes closed and tucked into ruffled feathers, solitary evergreens swaying. The surf looks like a beach and the spray shoots up. There is an encroaching storm, dark clouds to the northwest, swallowing the craggy peaks.

We resume driving, five hours winding through plains and mountain passes, fleeing the storm. I time the long stretches to pass slow buses and caravans, downshifting on the steep inclines, the radio stations fading to static and the green seeping to brown up the sides of the hills, into rocky crests. We cross swampy rivers that look identical to the ford in Fellowship where the Nazgul are swept away.

We get into Queeenstown just as the rain catches us, drizzle on the windshield. The GPS finds the hotel and we shift low up the steep hill, looking down on the lake and Queenstown in full. Two hulking peaks shoulder the stretch of water and rows of blocky abodes timidly creep down to shore.

Our room is spacious, a full kitchen and enormous king bed, a view of the pool. All for cheap.

We drive into town and spot Tina and Lisa, our friends from the SV Whitehaven. We gather under a glass awning, the thunderstorm pouring down on the street. Then we share drinks on the porch of a bar and watch the rain come down and move south over the lake.

We eat at a place called Flame Grill and watch the sliver of a rainbow against the misting hills. I have a locally brewed ale and gristly lamb and we catch up on our trips during the interim and our plans for the next week or so.

The edge of the fleeing thunderstorm cuts the sunset in half and diffracts the orange light across my back and Lisa convinces me to try out bungee jumping.

Then we wander over to a place called the World Bar. It’s rustic, a dozen deer antlers on the walls, and join in (with 25 other backpackers) a bar crawl, wristbands and DJ music and a buzzed stroll through the alleys and back passages of Queenstown on a Friday night.

Mar 7: Queenstown

We book a whitewater rafting trip down the Shotover River, a half day expedition over some mountain roads and down through a canyon of Class IV-V rapids, culminating in a tunnel bored through the rock in search of gold.

We meet at the tour shop around noon, and we’re shuttled over to the river base camp in old white buses. There we suit up in full body wetsuits, including booties, helmets and lifejackets. Then we hug our gear and pile onto another bus, this one towing four stacked rafts.

A funny little Swiss guy tells us jokes and preps us with safety info as the bus, driven by a Maori local named Chief, climbs into the hills. We turn off the paved road onto a narrow gravel track called Skippers Road.

The canyon drops away on the side, into a canyon of ragged rocks and badlands, the road dusty and pitted. Chief makes turns that feel a bit fast and risky, meters from the sheer edge, and the Swiss guy jokes “no one’s ever died on this road…only in a flaming wreck down there…” It’s forty-five minutes of the gorgeous scenery, paralleling a little pack trail down below used by the miners, each turn met with groans from the passengers.

We see the river, tendrils of glacial blue cut through the rock, gray and ragged. We’re assigned a boat helmed by a guy named Johnny “Two-Combs” (for his haggard hair) who looks like Chris Pontius from Jackass. Five other backpackers make up our crew – two Danes, two Irish and an Austrian girl. Johnny is a bit of a clown, with tall tales about the surrounds and his past exploits, even pulling rafters from other boats into the water.

Karma catches up with him (and us) when we’re stuck on a shallow rock. He attempts to slide us off by ordering all of us to one side. We’re promptly rammed by another boat and our whole craft flips. All of us go under. We’re all trying to stay next to the raft, feet downstream, sliding through a few minor rapids in the frigid water. Johnny finally rights the boat and pulls me on and I’m scanning all the boats for Steph. She’s safe – wide eyed and red faced, and Johnny is just chuckling.

Soon we’re all back on board and paddling through big swells and churns in unison, but there was that moment of fear, with the boat upended, the water swift and rippling, and even the life vest felt frail protection.

The rest of the ride goes without a hitch, this beautiful canyon right out of a Sergio Leoni Western, with rusted mining equipment on the waterside, logs and buckets and rotten metalwork, and the vortexes of angry white water channeled through misshapen wedges of rock.

We end it ducking through a long, poorly lit tunnel, and then pushing out into a swift chute and a big splashdown. Certainly the most adventurous rafting trip I’ve taken.

But I did feel that fear, and it still lingers, even when Steph and I are dry and warm back in the hotel in Queenstown, spending a domestic night – boiling tortellini with pesto and salad, sitting out on the patio to watch the half moon rise above the conifers. That fear, like a seeping nausea, over the jump tomorrow morning.

In a way it feels like a terminal sentence, an appointment with the headsman on death row. This self appointed thrill where I willingly defenestrate myself from a rusting historic bridge.

I know the rational facts. Bungee is safer than rafting (and that crazy canyon) but the animalistic fright is still there. Wondering whether I’ll be able to do it.

Once we lay in bed I practice Zen meditation. I count breaths, each number a carved roman numeral on Whitehaven Beach, if only to cease the incessant replaying of the jump in my head, swan diving a thousand times from that platform.

In the morning I have a bit more resolve, faced with the task of checking out from our room on deadline, and I drive out to the jump site with clenched jaw confidence, playing a burned MP3 CD of Chemical Brothers.

The canyon remains out of sight from the road, hidden by sheep pastures and the shadow of the surrounding hills. Then we get close and it cuts deep, steep, gray stone a hundred fifty feet down to a winding river.

Steph is excited, snapping pictures as I step into the harness. I scoot out onto the wooden platform (bolted to the outside of the bridge) and the staff wraps a towel around my ankles and snaps me in.

I step to the edge, nothing between my toes and the slowly burbling water below. And I jump, arms out, the sound of the wind in my ears approaching roar, the river expanding in my vision. The earth pulling me close like spurned lover.

And then the bungee catches and goes taught, my hands still a good five feet from the wet, and I bounce like a reverse trampoline.

My legs are tingling when I climb the stairs out of the canyon to the rim.

The funny thing is this – facing the fear is done in a non-thinking moment, ignoring all the extraneous and simply jumping out and free.

But the essence of “the jump” (as in, all extreme, adventurous activities, from rafting to skiing to skydiving) is us embracing all that makes us human – faith in technology, love of adventure, addiction to adrenaline, pushing limits, and facing down the animal instinct of simple, dumb minded self-preservation.

We grab lunch at Subway, bag it and head up to the Queenstown Hill Track, a few kilometer climb out from town. We pass the newly constructed luxury villas, clinging to the hill outside the trailhead, and then into a dense coniferous forest of Douglas Fir and Wellington Sequoias, the latter with limbs like mammoth tusks and riddled with round cones.

Then up above tree line, a gravel path in the sun, light grasses and shrubs in the brisk wind and lichen on the rocks, our path littered with sheep dung. The ‘summit’ is a rounded knoll with a cairn, a heart constructed with small stones, and a 360 view of the surrounded peaks – the Remarkables and their jagged black teeth, Lake Wapitiko, distant unnamed mountains in the cloud.

We snap a squinting picture and amble back down, sheep grazing and watching us dumbly, wisps of golden wheat billowing in the foreground for a picturesque frame of Queenstown, the lake, a steep swath of evergreens, the southern sky.

We drive to Te Anau in the afternoon, a soundtrack of Decemberists as a thunderstorm billows dark on the peaks and the rain weeps down on pastures of sheep and farmed elk and deer.

And then we move to the outskirts, the storm a rolling curve of darkness, brilliant blue sky beyond, and there are crepuscular rays over the land, sharp peaks in the mist, and there’s a tension in the landscape, like the epiphany of a narrative. This moment held, balanced in its fleeting beauty, only as long as this stretch of road, this chorus of song, this ray of sun.

Mar 9: Te Anau

We make a day out of our trip to Milford Sound through Fiordland National Park. We leave early, a morning rain hard on the tin roof, then vanishing into fast moving black clouds when the sun is up.

We drive northwest into the mountains, through fields of brown grass and distant white dots of sheep flocks, the lake to our left. Mist swirls in the foothills, and looking across the water there’s a rainbow in the new day sun.
Another hour and the hills lift up, steeper banks and wild flora, isolated clumps of evergreens, the lake feeding into a river. The mist grows thicker, ghostly white and ethereal.

Racing the hulking tour buses around bends in the road, we come to a vast sea of grass in a valley, with snow capped mountains on three sides, the low cloud in long streamers up from the forest.

I stand in the damp and chilly morning, snapping photographs with all the other tourists, most of them overexposed in the intense light.

Then we pile back into our vehicles and continue on to witness more beautiful sights. Higher into the mountains the road winds up cliff sides with majestic vistas of snow packed peaks, melt water spilling down the rock faces, tenacious trees with mossy limbs at impossible angles. The light over everything is sharp and intense, the color of snow and ice on high near blinding.

Above tree line the road follows the rock fall of a melted glacier, a boulder field colored with lichen and fragile shrubbery. In the cleft of the mountain the snowpack still hangs, draining into a thin misting waterfall.

There’s a tunnel through the mountain, bored straight through, unlit and dripping, slanted downhill towards the coast. We emerge into a stretch of snaking road into the valley, sheer rock faces escorting us to the sea. We pass through a stretch of dense forests and Milford Sound is there, a finger of water guarded by immense Mitre Peak and the surrounding hills.

Fiordland is a damp, wet land of constant rain and mist, but we’ve gotten especially lucky with the timing. There are only sparse clouds, blue skies and the intense sunshine. It filters through the lush plant life, setting halos on the moss and the fronds of ferns sprouting through the old growth trees.

At the outpost we grab a coffee and a snack, but we don’t feel like trudging onto a boat with dozens of other tour bus tourists just to chug around the sound. I want to get out “in it” and be immersed in the environment, surrounded by the dripping undergrowth and the bird calls, not simply have the iconic peaks paraded by with the aid of a noisy diesel engine.

There is one hiking trail at the sound – Milford Track – but it requires a reservation and 4 days to commit to the 54km. One day.

Instead, Steph and I decide to drive the car back along the road for a set of small walks at the spots we missed coming in. We see a mystical place called the Chasm, where a tumbling river carves weird shapes into a canyon of slick black stone. We have a short walk through the strange moss forest around Lake Gunn, every branch and trunk coated in a furry blanket of green.

And up high, a trail called Gertrude’s Shoulder. A stream of the purest blue water stilled in a wide pool, the polished stones tinted like a sapphire in the sun. But there is mud and Steph turns back to read in the car. I trudge on through long grass, hopping gurgling stretches of river, dense forest on the either side rising into naked rock, snowfields further up. The grassy field becomes soggy and impassable – but the key is to escape the tourist hordes, the sight of the road, for a long moment to breathe the mountain air and be surrounded by that beauty.

For much of the trip through Fiordland I feel like we’re being routed into small little paved nature walks and prepackaged activities (like the boat rides) and the legitimate wilderness explorations and journeys are hidden from us. In a way, I guess that’s a good thing – prevent the clueless tourists from wandering off a cliff and requiring rescue for a sprained ankle. And because it is such a unique and beautiful environment, it feels like we shouldn’t be here at all, that these are sights not meant for modern eyes.

I’ve been doing some thinking and reading lately and realizing that proper management of beautiful nature spaces requires tourism and visitors to refill the coffers and publicize the protectionism. We are part of the earth and inevitably tied to it and head in the sand isolationism will just result in exploitation by someone else with courser aesthetics and morals.

That night we spend a domestic evening in Te Anau, frying up some zucchini, perhaps overwhelmed by all the beauty, and go to bed early.

In the morning we check out early, a constant rain on the drive back towards Queenstown. We make a quick stop in the Adventure Capital for a bathroom break and coffee and a rainbow is perfectly arced over the town, from one bank of the lake to the other. I’ve seen a rainbow practically every day in New Zealand.

Mar 11: Christchurch

Our bed and breakfast in Christchurch is an old house with a cultured flair, the decor a mix of antiques and worldly art. I pass out on the bed in our room for an hour or so, the blue skies and puffy clouds panning through the window of vision, framed by translucent pink curtains. The window looks down on an aluminum roof, overgrown with flowering vines and creepers.

We have a wonderful breakfast with our host and four Danish travelers staying at the B&B. Scrambled eggs and English muffins, with fruit salad and toast and coffee. Our host’s daughter is a talented musician and has performed internationally and there is a covered grand piano and stringed instruments in the dining room, soft classical melodies on the stereo.

We drive out to the coast, a wind swept beach at low tide with scattered shells and rotting seaweed and the sand blows in long streamers out into the surf. There are strange rock formations further down, rising out of the water and sand like dark creatures, the largest one topped with a cross and a small stone lookout. The rough rock has been carved out by the wind and the tides and there’s a sandy cave within, the walls lined with living barnacles and muscles, the wet puddles bouncing back the light in warm shadow play on the cave walls.

We brush the sand off our shoes and hair and drive into town to procure some tourist items, snapshots of the church, its red door wrapped in flower garlands for a festival, street musicians and magicians out in the square. We walk through Victoria Park, big willows over a slow river with ducks and grasses on the bank, a statue of James Cook and Queen Victoria, the dour matriarch plump and stolid and glaring into the horizon.

Then the wind picks up, dark clouds over the Victorian homes and a dense rain pounds down, complemented with bouncing hail. We head back to the parked car (and then the airport) leaving New Zealand behind.

I think I’ll be back.

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