I ended my last post after my 10th full day in New Zealand with the Flying Kiwi tour. By the end of those ten days I had developed a close group of friends and done some amazing things, but I still had five more days on the South Island and these would prove to be the best of the entire tour.
The day is January 27, 2012. We had an earlier morning than expected because the impromptu campsite we spent the night at was further away than our original destination and we were going to try to see some penguins. Had the weather stayed nice the night before we would have gone to the Te Anau beach to watch all the Little Penguins come in from the sea for the night. The gale prevented us from doing this and so Holly and Steely had made a master plan to not only let us see the penguins but to also get us completely and totally caught up with the original itinerary. The bus was pretty quiet on the ride to the penguins because everyone fell back asleep. The little excursion was nice; we got to see the sunrise over the beach and the weather was great but we only saw a few penguins. We actually saw just as many seals as we did penguins and this caused quite a bit of emotional trauma when people were told that seals and penguins don’t exactly get along. It didn’t help that Holly came down with us and started naming the very few penguins that we had seen. I wonder if Brian made it. The highlight of the stop was when we saw one lone penguin waddle out of the bushes, down the beach, and dive awkwardly into the ocean. People eventually got bored with watching one penguin standing in a bush so we piled back onto the bus and quickly fell back asleep while Steely drove us to some monster testicles in the sand. Bet that got you to look twice, eh? Yes, we were on our way to the Maoraki Boulders. The boulders are quite large, circular rocks along the beach that the Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand) believe were the testicles of a huge sea serpent that their ancestors cut off so that the monster would leave their people alone. The boulders were actually really fun and this stop was what definitely woke everyone up. I immediately started jumping from rock to rock and with each view down the beach there were larger and larger ones to try and climb. Andy found a massive tree trunk that entertained us for a while as well. Unfortunately for me I was the one that discovered the huge trenches that surrounded each individual stone. Hid under the water, these trenches were a good foot deep and were formed from where the sand had been washed away from around the boulders. One of my running starts to climb on top of a boulder ended pretty awfully in such a trench. The people who were watching said it looked like I didn’t even try to jump; that I just ran into the damn thing for shits and giggles. When it happened I was soaked, slightly embarrassed, and a little peeved but soon realized I would be laughing my ass off it had happened to someone else and just embraced it. The beach was serene and we were the only ones on it the entire time we were out there. Lingering on the beach as long as possible, I finally gave in and ran up the wooden stairs to the café located inside the gift shop. Most of the bus was there huddled around the tables and counter waiting impatiently for their morning drug so I slid into a chair and waited. I had barely sat down from paying when Holly came in and told everyone that the bus was loading up. You could have cut the tension in the room with a knife as each passenger looked at one another wondering who would be the person to listen immediately and board the bus or pipe up about having already paid and refusing to move unless their coffee was in hand. Although no one said it loudly, not a person walked out of the café but rather started to inch slowly but steadily towards the counter as if proximity to that flat surface would make their coffee appear there quicker. The two ladies preparing the drinks were frantic enough with the rush of people our bus had sprung on them that the new time constraint had them so desperate they began letting people walk out with juices and sodas instead of the coffees that were half made. I was one who decided that the monetary value of the coffee wasn’t enough to risk getting on the bad side of Holly and Steely so I returned to the bus and right when I had come to terms with not having my lovely mocha Rachel came running onto the bus with both of our drinks in hand. What a sweetie. Now that everyone was caffeine and sugar induced we could start our long bus ride happily. We were off to Dunedin, home of the steepest street in the world and our last place to stock up on supplies and snacks for the Routeburn hike. Steely took us to the steepest street first and I admit I was a bit confused because from the bottom it doesn’t look too bad. An offhand remark by Holly about the fastest time running up and down the street was all the motivation I needed to give it a go. Mistake. Huge mistake. I made it about halfway up the hill before my quads literally said, “Fuck you Ben, this is stupid,” and stopped working on me. That was a good enough sign for me to start walking. Rachel was timing me ascent but I never did find out what it was. The walk back down was much easier and I spent the entire time thinking how the hell anyone could survive running down that paved slope of death. One bad step and you would be plummeting to an untimely death or extended tour of Dunedin hospital. The world’s steepest street conquered, the bus rolled into downtown Dunedin so that its inhabitants could venture out into the streets to find food, clothes, and anything else they might desire. Only catch was that you had to be back at the bus in two hours. Ready, set, go! Holly had given us some vague directions as to where the best shops and restaurants were so we followed those the best we could. Alex wanted to get a camelback for the Routeburn and the rest of us were keen on picking a few hiking things up as well so we wandered into a store for a few minutes. Successful as always with our shopping we then put immediate sustenance in our sights. We crossed the street to a bar called Metro (you will learn why I remember the name in a few sentences) and stuffed down some pizza before realizing we only had 15 minutes left to get back to the bus and we hadn’t gotten snacks yet! Snacks took priority in this situation so we ran into the supermarket to stock up on Oreos, chocolate peanuts, gummy worms, muesli bars, and a few bottles of wine. I know you’re thinking that all sounds like awful hiking food but go walk 20 kilometers, eat an Oreo, and tell me that it wasn’t the best thing you’ve ever done. Also, the wine was for that night and not the hike (that’s a lie, we actually did debate on taking a few beers or something up the mountain with us but decided it wasn’t worth the weight). A mad dash to the bus ensued with a small pit stop for Andy and I at the most high-tech toilets I have ever used. The door locked automatically and opened only after the sink had been turned on for a few seconds. Looking back, this is actually a really freaky mechanism but in the moment it seemed okay. When we got to the bus Holly asked us what all we had done and I repeated everything I just wrote to her. Upon hearing that we went to Metro she laughed and asked me if I enjoyed it. I told her yes only to hear her tell me that Metro had been closed less than a year ago for failing the sanitary assessment. Whether it was bad food or not, I felt slightly queezy for a few hours after hearing that. A short bus ride has us in Te Anau, where we would spend the night. I chose to upgrade this night because it was relatively cheap and it would allow me to get everything packed the way I wanted it for the Routeburn the next day. We did a barbeque for dinner and afterwards those who were doing the hike got sorted into ‘food buddies’ and handed our rations of food for the journey. Rachel and I were food buddies so when we had received all of our food we split it up amongst the two of us along with dishes, utensils, a metal pot, and cups. Now about this food. For breakfast each day we got muesli and milk powder, lunch on the second day would be salami and cheese, and dinner for the two nights would be from freeze dried bags. Think astronaut ice cream but for your spaghetti. At that point Andy and Claire joined in and we downloaded all the pictures from our white water rafting adventure to all of our memory cards. This inevitably led to us looking at them over and over again. The pictures are embarrassing enough as is but when Rachel would zoom in on her iPad to show individual faces and expressions they are just downright brutal. In my defense, I don’t know many people who can jump off a 10-meter cliff gracefully. Metal pot filled with cheese, salami, muesli, and chocolate in tow I returned to my room to pack and call it a night.
The day is January 28, 2012. After a great night’s sleep I wake up to throw my backpack in the bus and everything else that I wouldn’t be taking on the Routeburn into the trailer. A quick breakfast and hurried sandwich making session later I found myself back in the backseat of the bus. Our destination was Milford Sound. To get there the bus had to go through a huge man-made tunnel known as _________. I tried to hold my breath the whole way through but never came close. At the docks we were all handed our boarding and free muffin tickets by Holly and then joined the other tourists on the boat. The weather was shit that day; dark, cloudy, and rainy. Holly insisted that this was the best way to see the Sound though but most of our thoughts were focused on the multi-kilometer hike we would be doing that afternoon. To be fair, I think Holly was right about the best weather to view the Sound. Since it had been raining for a few hours by the time we started our cruise the waterfalls in and around the Sound were very prominent. The only downside was that the fog was so low between the mountains that it actually cut the tops of them off so it was hard to perceive just how huge the mountains really were. Outside of that minor detail it was a truly beautiful place. Even though waterfalls start to all look the same after awhile, I still found myself taking pictures and gazing in a sense of wonder at each new fall we passed. There is also a seal colony inside the Sound and the boat got surprisingly close to the rocks where they were sleeping and playing so that was very cool. The cruise also took us right underneath one of the larger waterfalls but I had run inside by this point. At the conclusion of the cruise we all got back onto the bus and it wasn’t until later that I realized that would be the last time I would walk onto the bus. Even typing that sounds weird and it’s been almost two weeks since I left the tour. Steely pulled his sexy blue ride up to the start of the Routeburn and after a quick photo session we all set off. Now, the Routeburn track is a three-day, 32-kilometer hike that has about a 1,100-foot climb and 1,000 foot decline. It is not considered to be an advanced hike and the terrain isn’t necessarily all that challenging but it is still a definite achievement to accomplish. Although we would all be hiking the exact same trail the Flying Kiwi group was split into three sections, all of which would be stopping at different points along the trail for the two nights. The first group was a group of 4 who would be doing the traditional version of the hike that split the walk up into equal sections for the first two days with an easy day at the end and would be staying at McKenzie and Flat huts. The second group, which I was in, would have their easy day on the first day followed by a long second day and a medium length third day. We would stay at Howden and Fall huts for our overnights. The third and final group would be doing a mix of the first two. They would have an easy day on both the first and third days but have an extremely long day in between the two huts. In addition, this third group would be camping due to all the beds in the huts along the trail being booked. The third group stayed at Howden and Flatt campsites for their overnights. When we started out, I think everyone expected that our paths would cross a lot more than they actually did. To be honest, I never saw anyone from the first group until we had finished the hike and the campers were with us the up until the afternoon of the second day when we lost them due to our different lodgings. I’m rambling. The first bit of the hike was nice even in the rain and cold. The cold didn’t last long because we were hiking but it was raining just hard enough that it would be uncomfortable to take the waterproof gear off. The scenery was beautiful, though. Winding its way through rainforest-esque terrain, the trail wasn’t too challenging and allowed us to get some really great photos. The rain definitely gave the forest a certain look and smell about it which was cool to see and experience. Like I said before, this first day was extremely easy for us and we were only walking for about two hours before we reached Howden Hut, a picturesque little building alongside Lake Howden. New Zealand is very clever with their names. Had the weather been better we might have done an optional hike up to the peak of a nearby mountain that was about a two hour round trip but we decided it wasn’t worth it and began the process of settling in for the night. Howden Hut was a nice little place. There was a porch you had to leave all your wet and muddy gear on and the first floor had a few gas burners, a wood fireplace, and five tables with benches. The ceiling was high with rafters coming across from all directions. From these people had hung everything from sleeping bags to socks and the immediate area around the fireplace had become the home to many damp shoes. There was a corner staircase up to the second floor where the bunks were. This floor was split into three alcoves each filled with bunks for a total of 26 beds. I grabbed a top bunk along the back wall of the second alcove and after I unrolled my sleeping bag and hung my various articles of clothing in the rafters went back downstairs. Much to our surprise (and theirs) we were not alone in the hut. A few pairs of internationals would be staying with us along with a family and their friends. The family and their friends were very friendly and they clicked pretty well with our group. At one point or another there was always food going around as well. Whether it was a bag of chocolate peanuts or someone making dinner we absolutely took the approach of eating whenever we got bored. Rachel and I lucked out when Andy and Claire offered to trade us our cabbage soup for their spaghetti Bolognese. I got my handy dandy metal pot to boil water and after an experimental stage of how exactly to get the boiling water into the plastic bag we were soon waiting patiently for our food to cook. See, we all thought that we would be pouring the food into the water but the instructions actually had us put the water in the bag the food was in and then reseal the bag for 15 minutes. Since neither of us had ever had food like this before, Rachel and I decide to film each other’s reactions on the first few bites. To my surprise it wasn’t all that bad. The taste was dead on but what I got hung up on was the fact that the texture was that of Styrofoam. It felt like I was chewing packing peanuts drenched in tomato sauce. As we cleaned up from dinner we all slowly came to the realization we had no idea what we were going to do for the rest of the night. There wasn’t much else to do besides sit around one of the tables talking or going to bed. We played a few games of hangman, discussed which movies we considered to be ‘must sees’, tried to figure out when the song “Hallelujah” is played in Shrek, and tons of other completely random stuff. It didn’t take long for people to start taking that corner staircase up to the bunks but I was one of the last ones up talking with Alex and Martin. I knew that the next day was going to be a long one, but I could sleep when I was home.
The day is January 29, 2012. Before we had gone to bed the night before one of the topics of discussion had been what time all of us felt was appropriate for us to start on our 7-hour hike. After going back and forth between a few times we arrived at 7:30am and one simply had to get up with enough time to be ready to leave at that point. I woke up and it felt like I had been sleeping in a sauna that poured the coals into old hiking boots. None of us had noticed the lack of ventilation in the room when we went to bed but the odor and mugginess was so heavy you could practically see it hanging in the room. The main room was much easier to breath in and it held the means to make breakfast so it quickly became the popular place to be. It was a bustling mess of boiling water, unpacked bags, powder milk and coffee, and a shoulder-to-shoulder queue for the muesli. As I am sure you all expected, we didn’t get off right at 7:30 but came pretty damn close. Close enough for us all to say that we left on time. Our walk started off along Lake Howden Lake just about an hour after sunrise and would take us winding up the mountainside through the forest until dumping us above the tree line to climb the summit. We couldn’t have asked for a better day, either. There were only a few clouds in the sky but it wasn’t too hot or too cold. A breeze balanced out the sun quite well but even this wouldn’t be a factor until we had trekked our way up out of the forest. It took us about four hours to walk up through that last section of forest during which we had some great views of the sun breaking through the canopy, were joined by a few friendly and curious birds, and I found a pickax that I carried around for awhile. At one point along the trail we were paused momentarily by a sign that pointed right to go past a waterfall (clearly visible from the sign) and left to go along the flood path for when the waterfall was impassable. This moment would become a defining one for ‘The Group,’ for better or for worse. When I saw that we were caught up on whether to walk through an awesome waterfall or be a bunch of pansies and take a bridge across I ran off into the falls. It was brilliant. The dirt trail ended right when the mist started to hit you and you were left to jump, run, skip, or slowly climb over the rocks that made up the edges of the pool. I stuck mainly with the jump technique and for some reason unknown to me yelled out “KaKaw!” multiple times while I galumphed across the rocks. This call would soon become a common way for us to get each other’s attention, display excitement, or just be stupid. That was a great moment. We also had a stop at McKenzie Lake, where the first group had spent the night before, where we had a snack and explored before starting our last big climb. Finding my way down to the lakeshore was all I needed to be entertained as there were huge rocks lining the shore that might as well have had “Come Climb Me” writing on the side of them. Not being one to break the rules I did what the sign said and spent the next 10 minutes jumping around from rock to rock trying to get as far out and high as I could. We still had a long ways to go though so we threw all our wrappers in the trash bag, buckled the packs up tight, and set off again. Coming up out of the forest was a bit more challenging than any of us had expected. We knew that it was going to be the steepest part of the entire climb but weren’t prepared to be scrambling up rocks and making almost 360o turns up the mountain. Although I thought that it was incredibly fun there was a little voice in the back of my head that questioned just how optimistic Holly was being when she told us the track wasn’t challenging at all. Since nobody was satisfied with the breakfast we had had that morning and with the hardest part of the hike behind us we soon began looking for a place to stop and enjoy our salami and cheese. When we did stop it was at a huge outcropping along the trail that looked out across two valleys, one of which we had just walked through and the other which was home to a river, highway, and multiple campsites. At first I was oblivious to us stopping for lunch because I had dropped my pack and galloped off to the edge of the outcropping. No idea where the energy came from but the sight of those two valleys and the easy, grass covered terrain of the outcropping was all I needed to run off in search of a better view. I got it, too. On my way there, I just kind of set my sights on the part of the edge where I wanted to be at and went. Upon arrival, I realized that the outcropping was less like an outcropping but more like a small field on the side of the mountain and that I had actually come quite a ways to get to the edge. The view in front of me was worth every bit of energy and time spent getting there, though. I had a bird’s eye view of the valley we had just walked through and could clearly see McKenzie Hut and the lake at the bottom of the mountain. The trail we had come up zigzagged up to my left and in front the entire range opened up in front of me. I could see waterfalls cascading down to the river below and every few minutes caught the sun shining off the windshield of a car as it drove along the highway on the other side of the valley. To my right was the outcropping I had just ran down and when I saw Alex starting to come my way I ran back up the hill to catch up. She told me that they had all stopped and started getting lunch ready and was even kind enough to invite me to join them. I would have been flattered had I not known they only wanted me for the cheese that was in my pack. A few awkward moments trying to figure out the best way to cut and distribute lunch later and we were all munching away contently. I would take that meal over a 5 star restaurant any day especially when you count the Coke I stowed away in my pack and the fact that we had enough chocolate to feed an army. The Coke made its rounds through the group and when we made sure we had cleaned up everything properly we strapped the packs back up. It was only then that Alex explained to me that she had actually been coming to join me out at the edge but had stopped because I had come back. Upon hearing this I insisted that she go back to the edge with me and told the others to go on ahead and that we would catch up. I am so glad that I wouldn’t take no for an answer because I got an even better view than the first time. This time we opted to go for the closer, higher part of the outcropping opposed to the part I had gone down to by myself. Words cannot describe the difference that this made. Although the bottom of the valley to our left was cut out we could still see most of it but now on our right there wasn’t the outcropping but rather the entirety of the mountain range folding out onto the horizon. It was the most spectacular thing I have ever seen. When you are in a situation like that you get completely lost in it. I lost all sense of time, depth perception, and thoughts of anything but the present. What I knew was easily 10 miles away looked like I could reach out and touch and mountains that were thousands of feet high were the size of my fingernail. I have no idea how long I spent standing out there with Alex but I do know that it wasn’t long enough. So captivating was the view that I actually don’t have a single picture of it and while I am slightly sad that I can’t go back and look at it I know that a picture could never do it justice. Besides, the thought that I was so struck with being there in that moment that it never even occurred to me to take a picture still puts a smile on my face. When we finally pulled ourselves away we knew we were pretty far behind so we set off quickly to try and catch up. Of course we still had to pause to take pictures, play in waterfalls, and talk to strangers along the way but eventually we joined back up with our fellow hikers. People had begun to get a bit anxious at this point because the trail had begun to feel like a perpetual incline around the mountain that never seemed to go anywhere. Each time we would round a corner we were granted with another spectacular view but soon the anticipation of reaching the top overwhelmed everything else. When we did get to the ‘summit’ it was a simple one-room shelter with two long drops out the back. The shelter was situated in between two peaks and that is why I put the apostrophes around the word summit, because to be honest none of us were entirely sure where the highest point of the hike was. We had a vague idea from the cross section map but we never actually climbed to a peak of a particular mountain but rather just walked in and around the range. Our immediate goal reached, we now had one final climb before descending all the way to Falls Hut where we would stay that night. One of the best views we had all day greeted us shortly after we began our last section of the trail. As we rounded a corner a huge lake and a massive valley ran out in front of us. The lake was a dark blue and incredibly deep. From where we were there was no discernable bottom to it and the shallows dropped off into darkness only a few feet away from the shore. Claire also discovered that this was a prime spot for echoes so all of us took turns KaKaw-ing and yodeling. The descent was rough. Much like the final part of our climb out of the forest, going back down into the tree line was rocky and slow going. Even if it hadn’t moved when the person in front of you stepped on it, you were never sure if the rocks were going to wiggle or wobble, roll or slide. From up high we could see where we had to go and from down low we could see where we had come from. This was cool but definitely made it seem like we were making slower progress than we actually were. When we came around that corner and saw the waterfall with our fellow Flying Kiwi-ers swimming it was such a feeling of relief. The pack was definitely lighter for those last hundred meters or so. The Falls Hut worked much like Howden Hut the night before but was definitely a nicer set up. There were two bunkrooms each with six alcoves holding four beds apiece for a total of 48 beds. Laying a mattress flat and throwing your pack up was all that was required to lay claim to a bed and it only took a few seconds after that for me to start making my way to that waterfall. It was a tricky thing to get to though and I wasn’t too thrilled at having to walk up a hill just to climb back down in order to get to the water. As Andy, Claire, and I walked up the same friends we had seen from the top of the falls greeted us. I still can’t figure out why none of us hesitated in the slightest when they were in their underwear. Probably because that was exactly what we would be doing. When you haven’t showered for two days and have just got done with an 8 hour hike, there is very little that will stop you from getting into the water. The temperature of the water came closer to keeping us out than anything else though. None of us cared that we didn’t have towels, had to swim in our underwear, or that it was a pain in the ass to get to the waterfall but all it took was putting one toe into the water to make you question why you were there. It was freezing. The coldest water we came across the entire trip and of course it would be at the place where it would have felt the most refreshing. It didn’t stop us though. Admittedly, I only put my head in once and it was because I fell off of a rock into a pool but I am still going to say that I swam. I imagine we were quite a sight to see wading around in the water. Before we had set out on the hike Holly had told Andy and I about how cold the waterfall was and that if we got in we “had the biggest balls ever.” I won’t lie and say this wasn’t part of my motivation for getting in but her true bet was definitely a challenge to fulfill. See, on one of the brochures and maps for the Routeburn there is a picture of two guys standing naked with their packs on at the top of a mountain. Holly told Andy and I that she wanted a picture like that and we couldn’t disappoint. Since we wanted to be original and also prove to her that we had gone into the falls we decided to take said picture standing underneath the fall itself. It was quite a hard process climbing our way over to where the waterfall was. When we got there it was an even harder process to pull our pants down without falling over while the water slammed down on top of us. Claire was the lucky one who got to take the picture of us but who knows how many people saw it from the shore or the trail up above. Our challenge complete we all went back to the hut to warm up and eat. Alex and Kathy had a full ration of salami and cheese so we cut that up to eat while waiting for our freeze dried meals to cook. That night all of us had Thai chicken curry, which turned out to be really good. It didn’t even have the Styrofoam texture like the night before. Dinner finished right about when the park ranger came to talk to us about safety and responsibility but he added a fun little twist at the end. A few years ago on Christmas all the hikers at the Falls hut had made two signs covered in the phrase “Welcome to Routeburn Falls Hut, Happy Holidays” or something along those lines. Each phrase was in a different language and the ranger’s challenge was to see who could name 25 of the languages on one of the signs. The winner would get a bar of chocolate. Individually no one stood a chance but with a group the size of ours we managed to scrounge up 23 of the languages but unfortunately the ranger was a hard-ass on the number 25 and didn’t give us the chocolate. The ranger also warned us about the keas, an extremely smart bird, and opossums, which are easily the most hated animal by New Zealanders, that came out at night around the hut and told us that anything we left outside hanging over the railings or on the benches would most likely be taken or torn to shreds overnight by one of those two animals. Other than that, this night was much like our first night. People just sat around a few tables talking and what started as a crowd would slowly decrease to a table and then to a last few as people went to bed. By this point I had realized this was probably going to be my last chance to see the New Zealand stars so I stayed up to try and see as much as I could. Alex stayed up with me but since it was a cloudy night our interest turned to trying to find keas and opossums. None came but we did get a laugh when Janis came running out of a bunk room looking for his shoes that we has just moved inside. The day had been pretty draining though so no one was up for too long after that.
The day is January 30, 2012. Since we had to meet our ride to Queenstown at 10am we had to get a very early start to the day despite the fact that today was going to be a relatively short walk. The one positive of getting up so early was the sunrise over the valley. One second the entire hut was running around eating breakfast, pulling on fleeces, or brushing their teeth and the next we were all lined up along the deck taking pictures of the purples, blues, and pinks that were coming up over the mountains. We were a lot quicker this morning than we were yesterday and managed to go two for two in timely departures. #winning. To our dismay the first part of the hike was much like the challenging descent from the day before and we were slow going for the first hour. Slate is hard to climb down wide-awake and even more so when you’re still half asleep. We were deep in the forest once again but it was a much different landscape than the one we had climbed up through. It was much less a rainforest and actually kind of reminded me of home a little bit with all the pines we saw. There were also several suspension bridges which some people thoroughly enjoyed running, jumping, and bouncing on while others weren’t huge fans. Andy and I tried to circumnavigate one of the bridges though when we thought it was possible to cross the river via the rocks and boulders. We were wrong but didn’t realize it until 15 minutes had gone by, both of us had managed to get stuck, and I ripped open the bag holding the last of my chocolate covered peanuts. It was a bad 15 minutes for Ben. Once we hit the bridges the trail evened out quite nicely and we were easily cutting the posted times on the trail in half. You could say we were at the point where we just wanted to be done. The trail ended with one final bridge over the river and those who finished ahead of us welcomed us with cheers and applause. This is the moment that everyone realizes we still have an hour before our ride gets here and that there is even less to do here than there was in the huts at night. Fuck. Soon the entire group was back together just like we were at the start and we made a few attempts at getting group photos using the time delays on all of our cameras. Oh, tourists. When our ride did show up some of us were a bit surprised to see that it wasn’t Steely and his bus. This was the moment when I knew I wouldn’t be getting back on that bus again and that had me a bit unsettled. Packs were thrown in the trailer and we all piled into the shuttle for the ride into Queenstown. But no ride on this trip could go without something exciting happening and only a few minutes in we came across a man who had drove his car into a massive ditch along side the road. The elderly driver was obviously shaken up from the event and had to be helped from his seat so that our bus driver could manhandle the vehicle from the ditch. His prowess was actually quite impressive as he launched the vehicle (at one point its entire backend was a good 5 feet off the ground) out of the ditch in reverse. Kinda makes you wonder how he got so good at getting vehicles out of ditches. The ride went quickly but that may have just been because it felt so good to sit down. As we arrived in Queenstown the shuttle dropped us off at the booking office so that all of us could confirm and pay for the activities we wanted to do while in the Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world. Holly had reserved our spots for us while we were on the Routeburn but Queenstown is no different from the rest of the world and needed to make sure our money was where our mouths were. A big group of us were doing jetboating later that afternoon together and then the next day Rachel and I were going to do the Nevis bungy jump. Adrenaline rush, here I come. I got my first rush when I paid for the activities, thrills definitely don’t come cheap. While we were waiting to pay a few people had gone to our campsite only to find that the bus wasn’t there yet. Since we didn’t have a camp to go to we all decided to grab some food and explore the city for a little while. It’s fun to be completely lost in a city and just walk into one of the first restaurants you stumble upon. Sure it can be hit or miss but I think that it would have been hard to miss after wandering around in the wilderness for three days. Steak sandwiches, seafood pasta, and chicken soon flooded our table and disappeared as quickly as it got there. Hunger satisfied our concern then shifted to the fact we all smelt like complete ass and although the fact that we still had our hiking boots and packs on somewhat justified our stench we were pushing the border on what was socially acceptable. But we decided that we would continue pushing the border because we would soon be zipping through a canyon on a jetboat and no one would be able to smell us then anyways. A few minutes reprise at the campsite to unload our packs was all we got by the time we had to go meet our shuttle. The canyon was a quick ride away and we were actually out of the shuttle and onto the boat alarmingly quickly. A few cheesy photos here, a few cheesy photos there, and we were off racing through the canyon. Now you may be thinking, “The fuck is a jetboat?” When you think of a jetboat think of a huge jetski on steroids; what would be the offspring of a jetski and a supercharged racing boat if they knocked hulls. They are FUN. The boat itself holds about 15 people and has two massive engines that can propel it to 80km/hr and let it do 360o turns. The entire time our driver played a game of inches with us; coming a finger’s width away from the wall of the canyon or speeding over water you couldn’t drown in if you tried it was so shallow. He was a fun guy and took us up and down the course a few times before letting us off to be bombarded by gaudy tourist souvenirs. Our ticket came with a free photo so after we had collected out bounty we wandered over to the bar on site to enjoy a drink before heading back to the campsite. Here was where Alex and I started a friendly game of tetherball to teach Janis how to play that quickly became an intense battle that she only won because she cheats and the shuttle came to take us back. Since I now had no excuse to not shower and I highly doubted that anyone would want to be around me at dinner if I remained the way I was I grabbed my stuff and wandered over to the bathroom. Clean and in fresh clothes I began the process of packing everything up so it would be ready for my flights. Eventually I gave up and made the great choice to spend the rest of the time I had with the tour actually enjoying everyone’s company. Packing could wait for after they left. Since a lot of people would be saying their goodbyes in Queenstown, Holly arranged for all of us to go to dinner together. We were all expecting a bar setting with plenty of space for our large group but instead she led us to a takeaway pizza place located in the same room as an Internet café and travel organizer. We took the place over and were soon stuffed on the all you can eat pizza and breadsticks. We even got a free beer coupon with our buffet! J Halfway through dinner Martin got up to give Holly and Steely their card and presents that those who were leaving had pitched in for. The weed smoking bus from Cars was a gift for Steely since all of his buses had the bad habit of breaking and a traveler’s wallet for Holly since she had lost the company credit card in Dunedin. We so clever. Martin also collected a small sum of money to go towards the repair of the bus that had been the unfortunate acquaintance of that huge rock near Mt. Cook. While up there, Martin got incredibly nervous and shy so that made the whole thing all the more fun. When everyone was done the group migrated to the bar upstairs. It was pretty deserted when we got there but we would soon find out it was quite a popular place. The place was a bit odd and had some mildly disturbing artwork inside but also had a nice outside patio where you could smoke hookah, a pool table where you could embarrass yourself, and a stage for the band that would grace us with their presence later on in the night. It was a really great night. Almost everyone had come out and since we were the only ones in the place at the beginning we spread out, played some pool, and just chatted it up. I did become a bit self-conscious because I had quite a few drinks without spending a dollar since everyone was buying me drinks on my last night. Those beers were bittersweet to say the least. Right when other people started to fill the bar our crowd started to loosen up and soon after that the DJ started playing. A few chorus harmonies here and there was all the DJ got out of us but when the band showed up and started playing things got really fun. At least one person in our group would get excited at every single song they played. The DJ took notes while the band was playing and was much better after they had signed off. “All Star” by Smashmouth was a favorite because we had been talking about the Shrek soundtrack a few days before and also because it’s just a good fucking song. By that point we were all exhausted and, as always, people began to slowly leave the bar in search of their sleeping bag. ‘The Group’ outlasted most of them but even we were no match for Merin, Christy, and the new Australian boys who had joined the tour that day. But as we went home there was no doubt in our minds that that was definitely a great night.
The day is January 31, 2012. I woke up and could already felt how different things were since it was my last day. Thankfully, I didn’t have much time to think about it because I overslept a bit and had a date with the Nevis bungy. Rachel would be joining me on this date so we met up and walked down to the office where we would catch our shuttle. We ended up being a bit early (or the shuttle was late) so I was able to use the free internet to book my plane ticket from Queenstown to Auckland while I waited. That was definitely a load off of the shoulders. There was definitely a foreboding feeling when we got onto the shuttle but I was so excited that my adrenaline was already pumping it was all I could do to control it. Rachel was very nervous though and resorted to her iPod to get her psyched up. That shuttle ride seemed like the longest time I have ever been a car. The anticipation of the jump was bad enough as it was so it didn’t help that the canyon was quite a far distance away and we had to drop other people off during the ride. For the last part of the ride we had to transfer over to a smaller shuttle because the large bus we had been in couldn’t get up the steep road. The entire time I was thinking that Steely could have done it. Now the Nevis bungy is New Zealand’s tallest bungy jump. It is 134 meters high and hangs in the middle of a canyon. The platform you jump out of is a large box suspended in the air by cables across the canyon. The jump box only has three sides to it (the fourth side is the side you jump out of) and is split in half by metal gates to separate the spectators/future jumpers from the workers and the current jumper. To get to that box one must ride a trolley from the canyon edge out to what will hereby be referred to as the jump box. The trolley was probably the least safe thing about the entire experience as the workers have to carefully make sure that they don’t send too much weight out on it at the same time. All of this is hidden from the parking lot by the main building that house the bathrooms, shop, and photo/DVD purchasing centers. Now the time it took between us stepping out of the bus and being taken out to the jump box was incredibly short. Quickly stepping into the harness (after a highly recommended bathroom stop) we signed our lives away on a contract, were walked out to the edge of the canyon where the cart would take us to the jump box, and were standing waiting for our name to be called in a matter of ten minutes. Everything happened so fast you could hardly register it happen which was probably a good thing because every extra moment you had to hesitate made you less and less likely to go. Rachel was so funny during that entire time because she refused to look down. When the lady was talking to us about safety, while we were on the trolley to the jump box, and even while she was walking to the edge she didn’t look down the entire time. I was a bit too curious for that though and preferred to watch everyone in front of me jump, bounce, and get pulled to safety. I had promised Rachel that I would make her go in front of me so that I could force her to jump and in return I would have to jump because I couldn’t let her outdo me but my name was called first. After a brief moment of “Oh, shit this isn’t what we planned,” I told her that I would still make her jump and walked to the prep station. To get ready for your jump you are guided through a gate to a sort of dentist chair so that they can attach the bungy cord around your ankles. Once that is done they take off your safety clip (that has been attached to the ceiling up until this point) and clip it onto your waist. This was the moment where it hit me that I was about to jump 450ft with nothing but a glorified rubber band to keep me from being an unidentifiable pile of mush at the bottom of a canyon. The workers helped me to my feet and guided me out to this slight protrusion on the edge of the jump box where you have to line your toes up with a black band about three inches thick. They tell you to smile for the camera and begin a countdown. 3. Why am I doing this again? 2. Well, we are WAY past the point of no return. 1. Fuck me that is far. Go! Having no other choice really I launch myself into a graceful, perfect swan dive off of the cliff with arms spread wide and confidence soaring. Sike. What I imagined to be an incredibly display of athletic and mental prowess was in reality a pathetic shifting of my center of gravity and a slight bend at the knees. You can bet your ass that my arms were spread though and I even did a little push off at the very last second to try and save some dignity. I will let you all be the judge of that. The jump itself was an insane head rush. Having conquered all natural human and animal instinct, you find yourself plummeting headfirst towards the ground but then magically spring back up only to plummet down again. It is great fun. The actual bounce and pull of the rope isn’t that bad at all. You are actually slowing down gradually for about the final third of your initial fall so it was in no means a jerky experience. You don’t go straight down and straight up but that would be practically impossible to do and would require a perfect jump (which I didn’t have). Since the Nevis is so high there was no way for them to get the distance right to dip jumpers in the water but they told me I got about 12 meters from the ground. The coolest part is when you are completely weightless at the top of the bounces. That moment where you stop going up but haven’t started to go down yet is such an odd and irreplaceable feeling. I had been instructed to do two bounces and at the top of my second bounce I was to pull a ripcord at my ankles that would release them from the bungy and flip me right-side up (I would still be attached at the waist and so I would simply be sitting in my harness like a swing of sorts) so that I could be pulled back up to the jump box. When I was all unclipped and back in the spectator side of the jump box I was still on a pretty big high. Not only was I alive but I had just bungy jumped for the first time on what used to be the world’s tallest jump. I took on the role of encourager for Rachel as she continued to not look down and attempt to psych herself up. When her name was called she went through all the same motions as me all the while pulling off these ridiculous dance moves and doing anything to avoid what she was about to do. When she jumped, it was such a relief. I was scared that she wasn’t going to go the first time they counted by she did and actually got a better jump than I did. Guess that’s what I get for looking down. Rachel was ecstatic when she got back into the box and was still celebrating when we were back in the main building looking at the pictures. As she should have. By then my adrenaline rush was over (it would return in bits and spurts for a few days though) and I had come slightly preoccupied with the thought of leaving the tour and everyone on it. I guess this showed as Rachel immediately went into “Cheer Ben Up” mode. She informed me that the ‘water’ she had been drinking on the shuttle up here was in reality a powerful gin and tonic and then busted out celebration cookies for us to eat. The wait for our return shuttle was long and I began to get frustrated because I wanted to get back and spend as much time with people as possible. Finally, the pictures we ordered were done and we were back on the shuttle into Queenstown. A few minutes before we got off Rachel turned around and had me listen to two artists I had never heard of before, Two Door Cinema Club and Zero 7. They were great and were the first things I put onto my computer when I got back to Melbourne. Once the shuttle dropped us off we both returned to camp. My tent was the only tent left up because I was still not packed so that was a weird thing to see. I now officially had no choice but to get everything ready for my flight. Once I was done Alex came over to help me take down my tent one final time and also gave me a copy of The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, her current favorite book. When I was done making sure I had everything a group of us walked down to Fergburger, a New Zealand restaurant famous for their huge burgers. A double bacon cheeseburger was my comfort food for that afternoon and the burger definitely lived up to its reputation. We ate it back at the campsite with some glasses of wine and beer (had to get one last drink in together) but no sooner were we done than Holly and Steely gave the call to load up the bus. It was very strange to walk around saying goodbye to everyone, especially ‘The Group.’ I was disappointed that I hadn’t gotten to spend more time with them that day and admittedly gave some pretty withdrawn farewells that in now way gave justice to the relationship I had developed with them. I guess I was scared of the reality it was probably going to be the last time I saw any of them. As the doors of the bus closed I picked my pack up and set off towards the city. Every step was a struggle and new thought; I was truly overwhelmed and it was everything I could do keep walking forward and not turn back. I got to the top of the stairs down into the city and where I hoped the bus would drive by so I stopped to take some pictures and wave goodbye. I was waiting there trying to act like I was busy for an awkwardly long time until finally the bus pulled around the corner. I wasn’t quite sure where people were sitting and all I could make out were waving hands as the bus turned in front of me. I waved back and with a honk of the horn Steely drove off onto the tour’s next stop. Without me. I did my best to occupy my thoughts with finding a place to stay that night and I soon found myself throwing my pack onto a bunk at the Aspen Lodge a few minutes walk from the city center. Although all I wanted to do was go to sleep I forced myself to wander back out to get some last minute souvenirs and find something to eat. Cash was pretty tight at this point and I still had to pay for a bus to the airport so I was definitely counting every last cent that I had. I actually went without dinner that night because I couldn’t afford it. I returned to the hostel and bought a few minutes of internet (yes, this was more important than food) to let everyone know I was still alive and to write an incredibly depressing blog post about leaving the tour. When my connection ran out I foraged around in my pack for the book I hadn’t read a page of since being in New Zealand. I figured I might as well read a little since I had been carrying it around with me for the past two weeks. I took a spot in the corner of the main tv/kitchen area and spent the next few hours reading while occasionally looking up to people watch (subconsciously playing Your Team, My Team the entire time) and catch a few scenes of the movie some girls were watching. When I started to forget what had happened on the previous page I decided to call it quits and went to bed. It had been a very weird afternoon.
The day is February 1, 2012. Gah! Where did January go?! Not having anything to do or any money or people to do it with I got up early to make sure I could get to my plane on time. I would fly out of Queenstown at noon and my flight back to Melbourne would leave Auckland around five. For being last minute bookings, it worked out pretty nicely. I spent the last of my money on a bus ticket to the airport and then spent the next 10 hours sitting in terminals, airplanes, buses, and trains until I was finally back in Melbourne. My actual travel was incredibly uneventful and Air New Zealand proved once again to be a great airline to fly on with touch screens, food, and free beer on both my flights. Walking into my room was like hitting a brick wall, though. Not needing to find a place to stay, food to eat, rides to airports, or what terminal I needed to be in next meant that I had nothing to distract me from the thought I had spent the last 36 hours running from; my New Zealand experience was over.