Lake Ferry - Our Mount Doom hike has been scuttled, because the Tongariro crossing is in permanent nastiness, weather-wise, for the next several days. This has left a rather gaping crater in our final week in New Zealand. We’ve ended up in Lake Ferry - a bleak stretch of sand out near the pinnacles, where the hotel (a lovely, barren motel overlooking the sand spit) could be the gathering place for anyone within twenty miles.
Have I mentioned the food here - the food in New Zealand is one hell of a best-kept secret. With exactly one exception, we have not failed to find UNBELIEVABLY good food in every restaurant we’ve visited, largely sourced from local products, and always plated with an aesthetic solvency that would blow the hair off half the Food Network hags. Last night at the hotel restaurant it was prawns and fettuccine tossed in tomato sauce with chorizo sausage and pine nuts, and it was - yet again - one of the better meals I’ve had in my life. No one talks about this place as the culinary centre of the world? Is it because they’re too busy talking about the propensity to jump off bridges?
Have I mentioned the drought? It’s stunningly dry here, and all the highway “fire hazard” signs (of which there are many) are set to “EXTREME.” But more than that, you see it as you move through the land - driving down here, across mile after mile after mile of sun-blasted scrub land, one begins to worry. Demetre was saying that the country is within a stone’s throw of water rationing if they don’t get a good downpour soon. (They should go to Tongariro.)
Wellington turned out to be a compellingly livable, friendly city, with a solid strategy for public art, and walkable streets that are - for whatever reason - replete with pregnant women, suggesting that they have lots of sex there and/or are as fertile as the average fruit fly. Wellington also puts Chicago’s quaint notions of itself as “the windy city” in striking perspective - especially down by the bay, that town has WIND, man. But no one seems too bothered about it. Friday morning the folks heading to work did not seem in any particular rush about it, and Friday night the streets exploded with nightlife to a degree that was more than a bit startling.
We went to the Weta Cave and then I did my Obi-Wan Kenobi straight-line walk to Stone Street Studio without any plan or navigational assistance. The highlight of the stay, though, was going to the Embassy Theatre for a midnight screening of The Hobbit in 48/3-D/Atmos, which would have been a treat in itself, but… THIS THEATRE. Quite legitimately the best movie theatre I’ve ever been to a movie in, with a stunning lobby, tony nighttime bar under the screen (which creates the rather surreal visual of walking into the lobby and seeing no ticket counter or concession stand, but rather a vulva-ish tunnel leading to a brilliantly designed room full of flappers drinking Old Fashioneds), an upstairs cafe and lounge area, and then - of course - a brilliant theatre, with a gargantuan screen, the best sound system I’ve ever heard, and wide leather armchairs bearing the names of the benefactors who sponsored them. (I sat in Liv Tyler’s.) If they played Return of the Jedi on Saturday mornings, it would be like all of my life’s ambitions had crashed together in one place. The Embassy is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and puts Wellington near the top of the list of places in New Zealand now vying for my permanent residence.
The big draw out where we are right now are the pinnacles, which served as the Paths of the Dead and must be seen to be believed. Made up of dissolving towers of compacted scree, the pinnacles seem like a winding labyrinth of crumbling castle turrets and proud, erect penises stabbing the darkening sky. (Also: if the metaphors in this entry any indication, I’ve spent too long absent the company of a woman.) We were in the pinnacles as the sun went down, and the encroaching chill and preternatural silence - broken only by our exhausting efforts to scramble over the voluminous piles of skull-like stones - was immense. I would love to return with a good set of speakers, and bounce the Raiders march off every corner of that large, natural echo chamber.
Wellington, on a 2-day furlough from the Larger Adventure As A Whole - Once upon a time, there was a man named Demetre, who wanted to punch a seal in the face. I do not know why this obscene lust dwelled in him, but to look in Demetre’s eyes was to know the True Terror. So when, in the small and beautiful coastal town of Kaikoura on the South Island of New Zealand, Demetre learned that there was a hiking trail nearby where fur seals were known to come right out of the water and bask lazily within feet of passers by, he jumped at the opportunity and made a beeline for that trail right away with punching fist ready.
Here is what I witnessed, as relates to this story: down on the rocky shore of Kaikoura, under a huge cliff looking out on the Pacific Ocean, Demetre wanted to explore “around the corner” to see if there was a seal there that he could punch in the face. No sooner had Demetre disappeared around the corner, though, than I saw him come running back towards me as though the devil himself was behind him with a machete and five ninja dominatrixes carrying machine guns! Demetre, who is at heart a very calm and kind man, is not known for this sort of behaviour.
This is what was related to me, regarding what happened “around the corner”: Demetre went around the corner and saw a seal sitting there. He decided to get a little closer to it. At which point the seal reared up like an angry cobra, barked, and took two gigantic leaps towards Demetre with the intention of ripping his left hand clear from his body, rendering Demetre “Busterized” for all time. Demetre, who is in heat but at heart a calm and kind man, finally saw the wiser of his “punch a seal” ambitions, and got the hell out of there as fast as his two legs would carry him.
Moral: DON’T PUNCH SEALS, DEMETRE
FIN. We ride north. No seals were harmed in the making of this blog post, or in any danger of being harmed, although Demetre (who, to be fair, probably never really wanted to punch a seal in the first place) was in danger of having his hand bit off by a seal.
Kaikoura - Was this the day we all made silent promises to move down here? We were about halfway between Christchurch and Kaikoura, on the highway, passing through wide golden pasture lands and arriving at nearly the exact middle of nowhere, when we decided to stop at the next roadside restaurant for a snack… and just as randomly as that, found the freakin’ Secret Garden - an old train station in Domett, converted to a cafe, which served the most extraordinary food on its private back patio, wreathed in flowers and shrubs. Mainline Station, it’s called - get the chicken filo pie, if you’re in the area. Which you probably never would be, because this place is, again, in the middle of nowhere - an hour and a half in either direction to the nearest large town - and yet it’s possibly the most beautiful, perfectly realized cafe I’ve ever been to. The food is locally sourced, the chef comes out to talk to the customers, and in every direction is paradise.
I’m not much of a car guy, but I proceeded to have quite possibly the most fun I’ve had driving in my entire life, after leaving Mainline. The highway climbed up into some low mountains and snaked around corners and turns, and here we are in Chris, our crappy rental Subaru station wagon, and I’m driving on the wrong side of the road, mind you, and around EVERY corner - I swear to you - there is a very large truck charging towards us… and it’s AWESOME. We got in behind a tractor trailer who was driving even more batshit fast than we could and followed him up the mountain. I tried to execute a Tokyo Drift but I haven’t seen that movie. I did, however, come screaming around a hairpin sharp enough that my passengers weren’t sure we’d be able to pull out in time - just like Beggar’s Canyon back home. And when we were all just about losing our shit entirely from the sheer euphoric fun of it all, the mountains opened up - and there was the Pacific.
Kaikoura is like someone dropped a piece of Tahiti in a sheltered piece of the coast here on the South Island. Again, paradise. Main street is twelve stores long. The fish is superb. We went to a place called the Green Dolphin, all had the catch of the day, and for desert, there was fig salami with candied walnuts and goat cream cheese. I can hear the ocean now as the sun comes up, calling me home. Today we hike around the bay, eat more of the local food, and then jump on the ferry to the North Island. Further up and further in. I still don’t have my sword.
There was a point in the planning of this trip where we were only going to come to the South Island for a single day. Now I’d never leave, if I came here again.
Christchurch - Screaming out of Aoraki yesterday morning with a wet sky behind us and the buzz of the helicopter flight still on our mind lead to a quick chat about the quest for the Perfect Life, which, if it can be found anywhere, can probably be found here; we were thinking of the helicopter pilot, who shuttles fat tourists up and down a glacier five times a day and yet claims never to tire of it. Why? Because he loves flying helicopters. And every time he goes up there, he gets to see dorks like us completely freak out about the glacial cap and the mountains and all the other things he’s seen a million times; he sees them with fresh eyes five times a day. The perfect life, then, is simple if you can hack it: find a thing you love doing. And find a way to do it for the rest of your life.
It will come as no surprise that this place is apparently curative - I kicked an annoying little cold out of my respiratory tract in something like sixty hours, end to end - but it is endlessly surprising to me that for whatever degree the epic-awe-inspiringness of New Zealand has been caught on film in The Lord of the Rings and elsewhere, I would still say that (in those specific locations) the films manage to put, at best, 60% of the total onscreen. Arriving at Mt. Sunday after a long and bumpy ride down an unpaved road, giving way to the first view of the long blue valley ringed by snow-capped mountains and with that strange divet right in the middle of it - Mt. Sunday itself, Edoras in The Two Towers - we weren’t struck by how much it was like being in Middle Earth; we were struck by how successfully Andrew Lesnie uglied the place up to serve as the home of the Horse Lords. There are colours and shades happening in that valley that I have never seen before and will never be able to reproduce - a poisonous river running past the eastern face of the rock (which became my favourite vantage point) contained versions of green and turquoise that I’ve never laid eyes on and possibly never will again.
Mt. Sunday also afforded something else - solitude. It was the first stop on our long tour where we were not thronged by sun-baked backpackers, tour buses full of senior citizens, or inexplicable congregations of Japanese tourists. We were - the three of us - alone on that thing for a solid half an hour before another two hikers showed up. For that time, we might well have been the only humans in the whole valley; us, and the sun, and the sound of the streams far below.
“Marjorie” - the GPS voice here in New Zealand, who joins Linda (U.S.A.) and Wendy (Canada) on the list of people I shout at endlessly.
“Orcs” - other tourists, seen at a distance, approaching wherever we are.
“Chris” - our rental car.
Lord of the Rings location check:
Gondor - The White Mountains
The Plains of Rohan
Aoraki - It’s at the point now where we’re becoming playfully annoyed with the whole thing, coming around yet another corner to see yet another vista that must be witnessed and photographed and enthused over. Enough already, New Zealand - WE GET IT. Rocketing up from Wanaka through Twizel (Pelennor Fields - rah!), we arrived at the glacial valley in front of Mt. Cook to have our asses handed to us once again by the improbably astonishing landscape. It doesn’t suck here. It, apparently, never sucks here.
Having climbed more than enough mountains on our own power, thankyouverymuch, we booked a chopper to fly us to the Franz Joseph glacier in the mountain range near Mt. Cook; touching down on the snow field, the three of us pretty much turned into lunatics, running around throwing snowballs at each other and doing snow angels before tucking back into the chopper to fly around the peaks. Not inexpensive - actually, nothing around here is - but a real highlight of the voyage so far. I’ve never been in a helicopter till now, and having made a promise to be safe, don’t intend to do anything riskier than that - which in New Zealand is a challenging proposition, in that every regular activity seems to be available here in high-speed and on fire. What I don’t like about, say, skydiving or bungee jumping is the fact that while the margin for error might be incredibly small, the consequence of error is certain death. If my helicopter went down over the snowy peaks, I’d just take it as an opportunity to brush up on my survival skills. I’ve got things to get back to.
Last night in Wanaka we went to the Cinema Paradiso, which is a small cabin-like movie theatre with its own restaurant and bar (and the best - the actual BEST - fresh-baked cookies for intermission). The theatre itself is full of squashy armchairs, and one car. The feature was no great shakes, but the experience was enviable. It’d be worth moving to Wanaka just to run that place (in addition to all the other reasons it’d be worth it).
As we left the movie theatre a pack of younger folk heard us talking and an American girl ran over excitedly and asked, “Are you from the U.S.?” “Canada,” I replied. She slunk away dejectedly. “Oh.”
Wanaka - Every couple of days our landscape completely changes, though even by that notion I have to admit I never expected to come upon a friendly little beach community when arriving at Wanaka. All of a sudden the desire to keep pushing forward, forward, forward has been melted out of me - I could disappear here quite happily, losing day after day just wandering the beach, reading my gargantuan paperback, drinking the local on the various patios along the waterfront, and not talking much. If they had a decent rum, I might never go home. The best steak sandwich I’ve ever had, along with a couple of pints, made a fairly strong case for the place, regardless.
I was too hard on Te Anau - it is the hiking lodestone, apparently, for this part of the world, and I could go back and spend a month on its various multi-day and single-day tracks. The lady at Miles Better Pies told us about her favourite track, which she does with her 80-year-old mum, which “slows her down a bit” as she puts it - though between the general New Zealand hardiness and these peoples’ seemingly endless ability to vastly under-represent over over-represent every single quantitative value, I have no doubt that the 80-year-old in question could hand me my ass out on that hike and still have plenty of energy left over to bake me in a pie.
With relentless sunny skies in Arrowtown and Wanaka, and high-20s weather on the beach, we got our first chance at some real stargazing on Saturday night - so Dave drove us out around the bay to get away from whatever night light a tiny burg like Wanaka is capable of putting out, and we lay in a big open field and watched the sky open up over the course of several hours. The trick when stargazing with absolutely nothing in one’s peripheral vision but the sky itself is to try to lure your brain into believing that you aren’t lying on a planet looking UP, but rather clinging desperately to your world, looking DOWN into the bottomless vastness of the Whole Damn Thing. As a meditation exercise, it’s decent; as a pointed reminder of the watchwork magnificence of the Whole Damn Thing and the peculiar fortune of our window seat on this wild ride, it’s exceptional. These weren’t my favourite stars ever, of course; those are elsewhere. When you peer deep into something and see stars twinkling back, it tends to grab hold of you, and never lets go. Regardless, I saw six shooting stars over the course of the night, and wished for the same thing on each one (does that count)?
We drove home from the starry night with Demetre blasting “We Don’t Need Another Hero” on the car stereo, which is his theme song. We’re staying at the WanakaBakpaka - half hostel, half the best cottage you’ve ever had the pleasure to kill a weekend at - and when we got to our room, the new Katie, a bald British male, took one look at Demetre and I and said, “It was better last night; it was 2 Danish birds in here,” before returning dejectedly to his bed. Having entirely forgotten the existence of bikinis till I arrived in this place, and having some kind of mental picture of what Demetre and I must have looked like at that point in time, I can’t say I’m in a position to disagree with him.
Milford - Did we crank the Hobbit score, tracks 22 to 27, when driving a winding mountain road through wet forests in fog so thick you couldn’t see the tops of the mountains? Damn right we did. Day trip to Milford Sound today, which took us out of “regular New Zealand” and into “crazy Jurassic Park New Zealand” so fast that, had our station wagon been harried by a flock of pterodactyls, none of us would have raised an eyebrow. In Milford we took a long, leisurely boat cruise around the sound, past towering mountains garlanded with permanent waterfalls and rainwater spouts; past fur seals who roll in the water to aid their digestion; and - at one notable point - straight into a freshwater fall, whose power and intensity I might have SLIGHTLY underestimated. In this regard, my TELUS jacket, surprisingly waterproof, became the second reason that going back to my job there remains the best decision I’ve made in the past five years.
On our way back from Milford Sound we stopped to hike to Key Summit, beginning in a thick pea soup fog and adventuring into a wilderland of myths and symbols so dense that emerging, four hours later, was uncannily like waking from a dream or crossing into an alternative reality - and I’m not entirely convinced I’m not still there.
The deathwater - emboldened by my earlier experiences and carrying nowhere near enough water for the hike, I filled my bottle from a rainwater spout, which Dave and Demetre were convinced would lead to my death; they may have been right, but I don’t particularly want to live in a world where one cannot trust a spring as beautiful as that.
The throne of blood - after slogging uphill through spongy rainforest for over an hour we popped over the crest of the trees into a wide, dry scrubland, deathly quiet, raked by ghostly mist.
The wood between the worlds - upon reaching the summit Demetre found that the path lead even further on, away from the last of the other hikers and into a forest of strange shapes and preternatural stillness, ringed by small mirror-bright pools of water. I followed the path as far as sense dictated before giving up and turning around; this will haunt me for the rest of my life. When we emerged from the forest again, I could not be entirely sure I’d come back to the same world.
The Godzilla mountain - tantalizingly glimpsed through the pearlescent cloud which clung to the top of the mountain was a huge, huge, UNBELIEVABLY HUGE mountain behind the one we had climbed; although we saw it only in hints and fragments it looked like the grey, scaly back of some large, horrible beast, all the more frightening for the degree to which it could not be fully made out.
The God mountain - and then the cloud was blown clear of our perch, and a mountain so enormous that it dwarfed anything any of us had seen so far stared down at us from the opposite side of the peak, ringed by tiny fluffy clouds, and crowned by the platinum stare of the afternoon sun. The entire valley opened out below us, fading from saturated viridian to cobalt blue through a dozen shades of turquoise in between… and there, ever dominant, the mountain.
Normally when you hike a track where you have to take the same path down that you took up, it’s a disappointment, but the world of our climb and the world of our descent - one a dripping rainforest wrapped in a white blanket; the other a glittering forest at play in the sun - were as apart from one another as a dream is to waking.
Meat pie count, trip thus far: 5
Te Anau - a quiet, flat community in the middle of nowhere, whose purpose quite completely eludes me. It seems to be a way station for people headed elsewhere, but the elsewheres in question (Milford, Doubtful Sound, Keppler Track) are all a good distance further away. In the meantime here’s Te Anau, a town made up entirely of restaurants. Our demographic at the YHA hostel is downright odd - residents from ages 18 to 80. The six-bedroom dorm next to ours was occupied by a half dozen septuagenarian Kiwis and Aussies, like some outback reunion of the Royal Fusiliers.
Replacing Katie as the unwanted fourth member of our 3-man band is Lars (not his real name, because no one’s bothered to ask his real name), who is sharing our 6-bed dorm with us and is the living embodiment of a kind of consensus shared nightmare of every man, woman, and child who has ever stayed in any hostel, anywhere on the earth. Lars - who passed out on his bunk at 8 pm the night we arrived and proceeded to snore like a locomotive gone off the rails for the entirety of the next ten hours (or at least, whenever he wasn’t farting) refuses to make eye contact with anyone and should come with a medic alert bracelet forbidding him from sharing accommodations with any other humans. He doesn’t seem to do anything besides lay on his bed playing on his laptop, and snore. “I am Lars! I check into hostel and lie on bed! This is vacation for me!”
A little further down the road from Te Anau is Manapouri, which has a small beach - stumbled upon by accident. This beach was, from the moment I saw it, the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, whose description I shall not utter here. A bit further down the road than that was the rocky beach behind the Possum Lodge (!), which is - by our rough Google mapping - the furthest from home I’ve ever been, and likely to remain so, unless I eventually get in that trip to Australia I craved in my youth. Though if I ever do come this far and farther again, there are other things from home I’d bring with me.
I was at world’s end on 3/7.
If Te Anau has one thing to recommend it, it is the food truck down by the water called Mainly Seafood, manned by a kindly, bald Kiwi who has ruined me for fish and chips for the rest of my life. I have never, ever, EVER had a piece of fish like the blue cod this man sold me; it redefined the art form to such an extent that I will not order fish and chips from anyone else I ever encounter. Lightly battered, requiring neither salt nor sauce, and falling apart in juicy morsels with every single bite. The fish and chips of the gods.
I’ve been the furthest I’ve ever been. From here, I am - torturously slowly - following the cookie crumbs home.
On the Road - We departed the human-sized Venus flytrap that is Queenstown - we have heard several hundred variations of “I came here X years ago and never left” from every expat Brit, Aussie, Canadian and Scot we’ve come across, but have yet to meet any actual kiwis - and headed south. Queenstown Adventure hostel: A+. All the other guests must’ve thought we were a bunch of far out old men, but the facilities were excellent and - to be fair - we ARE a bunch of far out old men. Good vibe about the place and the showers are kickass, which keeps everyone pleasant. And you can’t fault the view.
Last night before we left and after a leg-punishing morning of horseback riding, Dave and I took one more impromptu hike up a mountain, this one (somewhat hilariously) called the Queenstown Hill, which was described to us as a moderate walk, which should give you a sense of the level the Queenstowners are playing at - because this was a straight 45 degree uphill march, unbroken for 2 hours, through neighbourhoods, then thick green forest, then spooky-ass spider forest, before popping out in a golden crown that would have given Van Gogh on his best day a run for his money, which then ascended even FURTHER to a peak that looked out over the entire gold, blue and green valley. Quite the vista, but boy, I did a number on myself going up and an even bigger number going down, where one’s calf muscles were given the full workout just to keep you from pitching forward to your doom on the vertiginous descent.
I never mind being sore, though. I like souvenirs. On the way up the mountain we passed through a Maori gate which was emblazoned with a plaque proclaiming “this is the path to the future” - which, in no small measure, is the short description of this whole trip. I am on the long roundabout now, having come a very long way to ask the stars a question I already know the answer to.
Halfway up the hill we found a corner of the path that had been decorated with dozens and dozens of piles of small stones. Exhausted, inspired, and drenched with sweat, I dropped to the ground then and there and meditated till my heart rate returned to normal, my energy had bounded back, and my breath was in perfect time with the wind.
Lord of the Rings location check:
The Misty Mountains
Undisclosed Hobbit 2 or 3 location
Some terminology notes:
“Katie” - the fourth person in our hostel dorm room for 2 nights running, who seemed to be asleep in her bed every single time we needed anything from the room, day or night. Example usage: “Who are you, the new Katie?” (in any instance where anyone requires sleep or quiet).
“Meat pie” - the signatory conclusion of any event; the means by which one affirms that something has been completed or accomplished. Example usage: “We just scaled that cliff. So… meat pie?”
“Platter” - none of your business, but I’m on one.
Queenstown - a.k.a. the nexus of extreme activity for the entirety of the planet earth, Extremeopolis, where stores supplying equipment for various dangerous outdoor activities outnumber food establishments by a ratio of 60:1. On (our) Tuesday, and after a delicious first hike up and down Bob’s Peak, we made the mandatory stop at Fergburger and watched videos of guys who had affixed rough water skis to their motorbikes in order to drive them out into the sound… just to see how far they could get before sinking.
We are surrounded by mountains, and when I made my regular slip-out-in-the-pre-dawn-and-find-coffee maneuver on Tuesday morning, I came bounding back to the hostel 45 minutes later, nearly jumping up and down with glee at the site of the sun rising over the Remarkables. (They are aptly named.) We spent the morning hiking up to Bob’s, which can also be managed by near-vertical gondola, but where’s the fun in that - and if there’s anything in the world more satisfying than a warm steak and bacon pie after a climb like that, while sitting on top of a mountain and looking at all the blue world around you, I don’t know what it is.
On the way up, the ancient forest gave way to a wide plateau about halfway to the top, and I dropped to the ground right at the edge and just stared at it all - the entire price of admission, in one vista. I scribbled some words in my journal, which don’t make much sense now, but sense is not what the journal is for - not for nothing am I chronicling longhand for the first time since I was eleven years old. On the way back down in the afternoon, we found a cathedral deep in the woods, a minor gorge with a frigid river running through it, and an explosion of more hues of green, brown, grey and blue than I would ever be able to capture, describe, or even fully remember. So New Zealand laid us on our collective ass three or four times in the first day alone. Sometimes, you just have to let go of everything you’ve brought in or will take out, and be in that space for as long as you can hack it, surrendering to the All.
I made a hash of wading into the glacial water with the GoPro, which is essentially the camera I’ve been waiting for my entire life - “What do you mean by INDESTRUCTIBLE, exactly?” - before we got ourselves nice and lost scaling our way back down to Queenstown. We were back on the peak last night for sunset, and I climbed up even further, till there were no Japanese tourists or armoured mountain bikers or any sign of human habitation at all, really; just me, and the mountain, and the wind, and the sky. I read some words over and over again till I was beaming, spoke promises to the close and holy darkness, and began the trek back down.
Today it was a horseback ride out near Glenorchy, under sullen skies and surrounded by mountains. Although it’s been with us all along - you’re greeted by Dwarven architecture at the airport, for goodness’ sake - the ride out to Glenorchy and back cemented the degree to which The Lord of the Rings has completely infiltrated the entirety of New Zealand’s tourist identity; our guides’ descriptions of the area ran about three to one in terms of Peter Jackson filmmaking references vs. general New Zealand knowledge and points of interest. My horsemanship, meanwhile, is improving.
On the subject of luggage crisis: averted. Our backpacks arrived yesterday - and I assure you, a fresh pair of underwear after 4 days in one pair is a whole new slice of heaven. The three of us are sharing a 4-person dorm room at the hostel and both nights so far we’ve had a randomly assigned fourth member - the latest of whom must have thought she’d walked into a chemical weapons factory when she checked into the room. Boys are gross. It’s been a long time since I’ve rocked a top bunk, though, and as I climb into bed I scribble lines to myself and secret messages to others, all by the beam of my penlight. Summer camp as it was meant to be done.
On the subject of stealing food from poorly-guarded buffet dinners at fancy mountaintop restaurants: it’s all about what one can palm, rather than plate, on one’s way out the door. (Repeated entry/exits, though, are helpful.)
On the subject of swords: yeah, I’m gonna need one of those.