“Home is behind, the world ahead,
and there are many paths to tread
through shadows to the edge of night,
until the stars are all alight.”
Part Two: New Zealand
After a significantly shorter flight, we landed in Auckland. We spent what seemed like an eternity going through customs, since I had brought along a tent. NZ is very particular about biohazards and contamination (thankfully), so we were pulled out of line to have our tent swabbed and checked for whatever bacteria or microbes they were concerned about. We packed back up in the middle of the airport after the tent being declared safe, and proceeded on our way to Auckland in the hands of a moderately racist taxi driver (After seeing how the Black Lives Matter movement had evolved and been handled over the past year in the states, he thought New Zealand would benefit from American cops coming over to “keep the Maori in line.” Not criminals or miscreants or hooligans, just an entire race of native people. Neocolonialism is alive and well). Anyway, we arrived at the Bamber House and spent the afternoon and evening doing some urban hiking around Auckland. We started with a little jaunt up Mt. Eden, and then wound our way down into the outskirts of the city and back to the hostel (after retrieving some groceries) to make a quick dinner and go to bed. While working in the kitchen, we met a fellow Californian, who turned us onto two really, really important things. The first is an app called CamperMate, which is totally free and allows users to download offline maps that have been crowdsourced by other travelers. This means that all along routes, we could look up places to eat, places to camp, hostels, bathrooms, and places of interest, and that the dodgy internet we were contending with wouldn’t be an issue. And, when we found really cool stuff, we could add it for future travelers. I immediately set to work using up all our free internet downloading the maps for the South Island while Lydia and our new friend continued to chat. At this point, she revealed the other important piece of information: The working holiday program in New Zealand. More on this in the next post, coming soon 😉
The next day, we continued our urban hiking over to the Auckland Museum; where we learned about Kiwi history from ancient eruptions, extinct creatures, Polynesian migrations, various wars old and new, and modern life in New Zealand. Afterwards, we caught plane to Christchurch and started the real adventure. I managed to get out of rental car lot on “wrong” side of road without causing harm to ourselves or others, probably only because it was late at night on a weekday and not many people were out. We stayed at Dorset House (which was a great hostel, I wish we had a little more time to spend there talking to people, but we literally showered and slept for a couple hours), and left early in the morning, headed toward Dunedin in the south. We stopped on the way to see some glow worms found on CamperMate, but realized that “cave” was a term used loosely in this case. The steep cliffs eroded by the creek we hiked up for 40 minutes or so were beautiful but definitely exposed to too much sunlight for the worms to glow at the time we were there.
From Glow Worms to Penguins
We opted to drive down to Dunedin in search of food, potential lodging, and penguins. As we walked down to the beach, a very excited woman told us there was one penguin on the south side of the beach. When we arrived, there were lots of penguin tracks, but no penguin. We hung out for a while along the cliffs, hoping to maybe see one, but eventually decided to walk up the beach. After a while we were ready to be able to open our eyes without the wind blowing sand in them, and headed back. Lydia recommended one last try at penguin viewing, and low and behold, what I thought from a distance was a giant seagull was actually a yellow browed penguin! We scrambled back into the bluff so as not to disturb the little guy or gal, and watched from a distance with our binoculars as s/he scaled the cliff to the nest waiting in the grasses. On the way back down the road, we decided to find food, and then go back to glow worms after sunset to see if we would have better luck. We parked around 7:30 and waited for the sun to fade. After about 20 minutes of listening to the radio, cars started to arrive, and pretty soon there was no more parking on the tiny shoulder. We looked at each other. Time to go. We hustled up the path, having already spent a bit of time on it earlier in the day, and got a good eight minutes or so to ourselves of sparkling blue pinpricks of light through the ferns in the gully. Then, about twenty five tourists, all with iPhone flashlights blazing, made their way to where we were.
The reason glow worms emit light is to attract tiny insects, which they eat. When exposed to light, they dim, and often do not rekindle their lights for hours, which causes them to starve if flashed with a headlamp or flashlight. In an uncharacteristic move, Lydia and I inserted ourselves into the group’s business as they shined their lights on the walls of the gully in search of the tiny worms. We asked, and were echoed by their apparent guide, to turn off the lights so the worms didn’t turn off their lights and starve. Shortly after, we left the glowworms to their fate and headed back in search of someplace with late check in.
Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold
We beat it early in the morning, as usual, and headed West. Our goal was to get to Fjordland National Park, and stake out a camping spot for the day so we could leave all our stuff and go hike. We passed through fields of sheep for hours, but eventually got to the ranger station where we found out we would need to go up and make reservations on site. So we drove. We drove through pastureland, and started into the mountains (side note: this is where the Misty Mountain scenes were filmed for The Hobbit). The constant snow melt sent tiny trickling waterfalls cascading down the rocks, and in the distance craggy, snow covered peaks loomed. We passed a couple pulled over to admire the view who were being harassed by a pair of Kea, the worlds only alpine parrot, and then found Cascade Creek Campground. After we claimed a spot for our tent, we immediately jumped back in the car and continued driving up, looking for a hike. Boy, did we find one. This hike was marked as moderate, which apparently means you are expected to scramble, sometimes on hands and knees, through the mud over massive tree roots and rocky terrain. It was, of course, incredible. At the end point of the hike (which was denoted by the trail simply ceasing to exist, oddly right after a random porta-potty which must have been airlifted to its current location) was the bluest lake I had ever seen, Lake Marian, cradled in a hanging valley carved from a mountain by glaciers and erosion. A couple groups of hikers arrived, so we decided to beat it back down through the woods, across the river, under the sheer cliffs, and over the slightly unsettling suspension bridge back to the car. On the way back to the campsite, we stopped by Gunn Lake to admire the stillness of the water. At least, until the sandflies stopped to admire us.
The night at Cascade Creek campground was both amusing and obnoxious in the way camping nearly always is. When we had left the campground we thought that most of the spaces were full. We were so wrong. Upon our arrival back at camp, we marveled that every usable, semi-flat space seemed to be occupied. And they kept coming. Pretty soon, it would have been difficult to wander off to pee without stumbling over someone in an oddly placed sleeping bag. As with all crowded campgrounds, the noise level seemed only to increase as the night went on, fueled by drum circles and alcohol. Sometime between three and four AM things finally seemed to settle down, only to start up again an hour or so later as the early risers (ourselves included) packed up to move on to the next adventure. We decided to head up to Milford Sound, the most northern point the park road would take us, and picked up a couple of French backpackers on the way for company. They suggested that we go check out one of the Great Walk tramping trails that ran through the park before we left. When we got to the Sound we found a small family of birds that were like a mix between ducks and chickens, and also found that much of the part we could explore without taking a cruise was undergoing construction. Deciding that we didn’t want to spend the time trying to figure out how to avoid all this in our photos (they told us we couldn’t photograph the construction), we headed back down for a hike. We stopped off at the Routeburn Track, and hustled out of the crowded parking lot to have the trail to ourselves for a while. We hiked until we hit the next small lake, Lake Howden, where one of the hut camps is located, then headed back up to Key Summit to overlook the alpine valley. We wanted to figure out where our next stop of the night would be, so we headed back down Milford Highway, making a quick stop at Mirror Lake before exiting the park.
No Room at the Inn
Now comes arguably my favorite leg of the trip. We drove north for a couple hours, passing through mountainous and treacherous terrain to reach the ultimate destination: Queenstown. It was here that Lydia and I believed we would find something to (at least briefly) satisfy Lydia’s desire to jump off of something very tall and for me to face my fear of heights. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that Easter weekend (which it was) is a pretty
big holiday in NZ, and nearly everyone in the country appeared to be vacationing in Queenstown. We started getting a little worried when all the large resort type lodges leading up to the town center had no vacancy, and we knew we were screwed when all the hostels in town were the same. We couldn’t even find parking to go ask about availability, so Lydia circled the block while I ran into Hippo Lodge Hostel and asked what janky, run down establishment anywhere in town might still have room. The guy manning the front desk turned out to be a transplant from California, but despite our instant California connection said he couldn’t help us. There just wasn’t any room at the inn. He started to doubtfully make a list of other possibilities, but then paused and looked at my mud splattered pants, dirty nails, and unkempt hair. The next words triggered perhaps my most triumphant moment: “Do you have a tent?” Yes, we do have a tent! And hauling it through all the extra lines at security was about to be worth it! He gave us a tent key (obviously not for our tent, but so we could shower after setting up) and told us to go pitch ours underneath the laundry lines behind the hostel. We were so stoked and thankful. Now, we didn’t suppose after this stroke of luck we would manage to find any adrenaline junky activity in town that wasn’t fully booked, but we stopped into Base Backpackers anyway and found that there were a couple of spots the following day around 4:00 to jump off a bridge. We booked our spots, had some dinner, purchased a couple stamps, and went back for a satisfying night of urban camping, only interrupted a few times by a drunk man climbing the tree above us and proceeding to serenade the neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning.
They’re Taking the Hobbits to Isengard!
The next day we woke early to get out to Glenarchy for a hike before our jumps, only to find that our car (and another one which was also trying to leave right then) had been blocked in by some inconsiderate jerk. Luckily, the guy at the desk (a different one) was just as immensely helpful and actually went around to different rooms until he found the culprit. Soon, we were on our way, driving down gravel roads looking for Isengard. As usual, we were using CamperMate to track our progress, but ended up on the wrong road. Instead of heading into the middle of where Isengard was filmed, we skirted the hills directly around it, giving us a spectacular overview, though a little distant. Since we had places to be later, we decided that rather than go back and risking running out of time, we would just pull over at a random trailhead and hike until we needed to go back to Queenstown. We pulled over at the next trailhead we found, and discovered our favorite hike of the whole trip. I don’t know the name of the trail, and didn’t take a picture of the signs, but after the first curve in the trail a sign appeared, warning us that “advanced alpine skills” would be necessary to do this hike. Since we weren’t packing in, we figured we would go see what they meant, and if the trail wasn’t for us we would turn around before we were in any danger. Around the next bend, the trail quite simply disappeared. We wandered around a
field, skirting the edges looking for some sort of marker, but finding only a sunbleached cow skeleton and a couple amanita mushrooms. Finally, I spotted a post tipped with orange paint high up on the hillside (see picture, I’ve helpfully circled it for you). I grabbed Lydia by the shoulder and pointed. We glanced at each other, and with a grin of “challenge accepted” trotted towards the hill. The next couple hours are some of my favorites to date. We followed a couple more posts, which gave way to tiny pieces of orange tape tied to twigs of brush. Many of these twigs had been snapped and were especially difficult to find. We eventually wandered into dense forest, and the markers evolved from orange tape to asymmetrical and inconsistently placed orange arrows nailed into the trees. We hunted down this trail for a couple hours, discovering an incredible waterfall and the greenest forest I’ve ever encountered, until we were forced by the clock to turn back around and scramble back through the brush to our car. Only when we were on the first ridge overlooking Isengard and miles of sheep did I realize it was Easter, and we had just had our Easter
egg hunt, NZ style (A note on this: my family conducts adult Easter egg hunts almost every year, where my dad hides 20 something hard boiled quail eggs. We choose one room or area, and as long as the egg is partially visible it is fair game. He camouflages them with spray paint, and then writes riddles in the event we get stuck. Some notable locations include: inside the wall (he cut holes in the paster), inside various pieces of fruit, inside the smoke detector and the ceiling fan, and one non-hardboiled egg cracked into a glass of water (the yolk was visible, of course). So, this “egg-hunt” was perfectly timed, and we felt right at home).
One, Two, Three, Bungy!
After we stopped giggling at our realization, we fled the flurry of tiny sprinkles starting and drove back towards Queenstown. We were due to jump off one of the many A.J. Hackett Bungys at 4:15 PM. This particular one seemed to be the best option for us: It wasn’t too tall (43 meters) and it was over water (good for me), but was also enough to give a good thrill (good for Lyd). It’s also the site of the first recorded jump ever done, so we were happy to recreate a possibly terrifying moment in history. We found the parking lot without much trouble, and proceeded to walk down the stairs, past the “Liquid Courage” bar, and into the waiting area. We were weighed multiple times, given a “toe tag” with our information, and sent out into the slightly more steady drizzle to await our turn. Now, I expected that Lydia would go first, this being her scheme after all, but when we got into line we discovered that the cords are calibrated carefully to the weight of the jumper and need to be reset whenever someone a bit heavier or lighter jumps. There were three tiny girls on standby, and then a slightly larger man. They made me jump the line to go with the girls so they wouldn’t need to adjust the line, and so I was not only separated from Lydia by a couple jumpers but also apparently doing it before her. I watched the three girls go, taking careful note of what the men tying our feet together said about their jumps. When one girl jumped off feet first, one of the guys cringed and sucked air back into his throat as though he had touched a hot stove. I understood why as a watched the video of her jump later: the whiplash from jumping feet-first is crazy. Pretty soon I was making nervous and awkward teaching jokes as my feet were being roped together, and before I knew it I was hobbling to the edge of the platform. I stopped a little too short and was gently nudged until my toes were a little over the edge and I was way, way out of my comfort zone. I was thinking to myself how embarrassed I was going to be when I couldn’t muster the cajones to jump and someone had to push me off the edge. I set the Gopro in my hand so that it would show what I was seeing rather than pointing back at me, and listened to the guy count off “One, two, three, bungy!” I think before he had finished I was airborne, swan diving off the platform towards the water. I’m not sure why I jumped so readily. Maybe I had no regard for my life at this point, or perhaps looking at the water and the equipment and the sheer number of people who jump this every day I knew I’d be okay. I don’t think I had a chance to process what was going on until I was dunked over my shoulders into the river below and rebounded back into the air. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so free. As the retrieval crew in a boat pulled me in, still laughing, I knew this was a life changing moment for me. I waited at the bottom of the path for Lydia to jump, then we headed up together to grab a mug of hot cocoa and check out the photos before heading to our next destination.
The Long Way Home
Since it was getting late and we were running out of time on our trip, we decided to beat it north, setting Haast as our destination. We wove between massive Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea as the sun set, alternating between cattle grazing land and fern-rich tropical rainforest. We reached Haast after dark, and nearly missed it. The entire community appeared to consist of two hotel/hostel establishments, two restaurants, a cafe, and a general store. Lydia’s dinner that night consisted of the most limited “salad bar” I’ve ever seen (her best option was french fries), while mine was the most English of all meals: a massive slab of lamb slathered in gravy with mashed potatoes. The people were super friendly and wonderful, and although we were not ecstatic about the eating options we had a great time people watching and chatting with the restaurant patrons.
Our goal the following day was to see as much as possible and beat it back to Christchurch, since we were flying out the following day. We had a couple stops in mind, but didn’t know what we would get through since we had a lot of ground to cover, most of which was on winding mountain roads. Our first stop was Fox Glacier. We hiked up to the base of the glacier, finding that it was at its lowest point in decades. We’ve all seen the before and after photos of various glaciers so I won’t spend too much time trying to relay my shock here, but it was disheartening to see photos of this mighty ice titan looming above the valley ten year earlier and seeing the sad, dirty hunk of ice left behind. I don’t doubt that it won’t be long till it is gone entirely. A similar story was presented at the Franz Joseph Glacier just a little ways north, although this one seems, at least from a distance, to be holding up a little better. We didn’t hike all the way up, as we needed to get through Arthur’s Pass and into Christchurch, but did spend a little time marveling at the oddity that we were standing amidst tropical plants and tree ferns looking at a glacier easily within hiking distance.
We kept heading north from here, cutting east through Arthur’s Pass (at least a couple of orc-chase scenes were filmed in this area) and down into Christchurch. We settled into the All-Stars Inn on Bealey, and tried to touch base with my friend Morgan (who I met least year in Athens) to grab a beer. Unfortunately the internet was a little unstable and by the time we were actually able to get ahold of each other it was too late. Lydia and I organized all our stuff, went to sleep, and started the long journey home the next afternoon. This involved crossing back over the dateline, landing in Tahiti the previous calendar day, catching a red-eye flight from there, and finally arriving at LAX, where we picked the absolute worst line at customs. Of course, Lydia had a connection back to the bay and needed to exit to airport to get her computer from our parents, so after sweating through thirty people in front of us who were having a very difficult time understanding what they needed to do due to language barriers, we sprinted down one last time, hugged mom and dad, retrieved her technology, and parted ways.
Stay tuned for a last related segment regarding future travels 🙂