New Zealand: South Island Part 1

When I left you on my last post we had just crossed over onto the South Island and were staying the night in Picton, where I got my ass handed to me in arm wrestling and we climbed over construction equipment. Sounds like fun, right? Let’s hear how the rest of the trip went…

The day is January 22, 2012. We get up a few hours early for a walk into town to see the sights and grab some breakfast. Steve, a true Southerner from Alabama, joins us for a while. After we eat we explore a bit and discover the beach that we had come in by last night. There is a very striking memorial to New Zealand veterans there and I am struck with a sense of awe at how highly those who served are treated and remembered. The war memorials that frequent New Zealand are made even more striking when you think about how peaceful the nation is. It truly is a humbling thing to see.

After a little jaunt along the beach we head back to the hostel where we check out and sit along the street like a bunch of hobos while we wait for Steely to pull up with the new bus. Everyone is ripe with anticipation because Steely and Holly had talked up this South Island bus so much. Every other word out of their mouths was about how awesome, new, and spacious this bus was going to be compared to the one on the North Island that wasn’t exactly in its prime anymore. When he pulled up everyone rushed on to try and get the best seats and I ended up in the back with Claire and Andy while Rachel and Alex were in their own double rows in front of us. Spacious indeed. Despite my best attempts the night before catches up with me and I end up falling asleep and would have stayed that way had the bus not stopped to let the tour see a bunch of seals. If the weather had been better I have a feeling we would have been there for a really long time because they were genuinely interesting to watch. A few pups were playing and some of the adults were swimming but that only gives you a warm fuzzy feeling for so long before wind and rain seep through. Today was also a rare occasion because we found ourselves ahead of schedule that allowed us to stop at a vineyard on our drive through New Zealand wine country. Not a huge fan of wine, I opted to play tetherball and soccer whilst drinking coffee and eating bruschetta with Claire and Andy. When we piled back onto the bus there was more bottles of wine than there were people, some of whom had become slightly intoxicated from the tasting. The next stop was a small town just outside of Christchurch and when the bus pulled up we were told that we could do a walk along the beach for a few hours or do some exploring. Given that the sky looked rather dark most chose to explore town and relax over some coffee. But as it always done right when you make the decision to stay inside the weather cleared up and it turned out to be a really great afternoon. We stuck with our decision though and Andy had the largest cup bowl of coffee any of us had ever seen so about 20 minutes later when we went to the beach he was completely wired. The beach was very pebbly (they would be like this from here on out) but we made the most of it and had a competition to see how many times we could skip stones. We were all awful and couldn’t get more than two. Our time on the beach was limited though so we piled into the bus and headed towards camp, picking up those who did the walk along the way. Camp that night was really nice. We had a nice shaded area to pitch our tents and a (relatively) spacious place to cook and hang out. The shelter became even nicer when the weather turned for the worst. There wasn’t much late-night activity that night because the majority of people had to get up extremely early to go dolphin swimming or whale watching. I hadn’t put my name down earlier enough so I didn’t have a booking but I was told that I had a good chance of there being a good spot that I could step into if I was willing to wake up and ask the shuttle driver. So by 10pm everyone was in their tents trying to go to sleep and praying that you hadn’t looked over a hole in your tent when you set it up. Camping in the rain can be fun but no one likes to wake up in a puddle.

The day is January 23, 2012. The camp comes to life slowly this morning. It is so early that the night before we put reflective jackets on our tents so that if someone slept through their alarm people would know to wake them up. I get up with the rest of the dolphin swimmers (which is about an hour and a half before the whale watchers need to get up) but quickly find myself back inside my sleeping bag going back to sleep. Not because there wasn’t an extra spot but simply because the entire trip got cancelled due to the weather. To be fair, we had been warned that this was a very likely possibility but that didn’t make it any less frustrating to get up and ready for nothing. The whale watching got the can as well so our incredibly early morning quickly turned into one of the more laid back ones we would have all trip. When it was time to go we went back into the town from the day before to pick up the latest addition to the tour, a sweet old lady named Susanne. The tour was picking up quite a few people that day actually. Had it not been for us needing to pick up a few new people in Christchurch, then the bus would have never gotten anywhere near the earthquake ravaged city. The airport was as close we got and while the Antarctic expedition terminal was cool the entire bus had a very somber feeling for a few minutes as Holly explained why exactly we couldn’t go into the city. She told us that Christchurch still had massive amounts of work that needed to be done and that traffic in and out of the city had basically been routed into one big loop. This loop was easy enough to get into but one had no idea how long it would take to get out. So we looped around Christchurch and finally got to the campsite that would prove to be one of my favorites. The camp was on an old, picturesque farm and we set our tents up around the house the sheep shearers used to live in. Aside from the poop that scattered the lawn it was a great spot that had a river running behind it, a nice big kitchen, and a piano that was just slightly out of tune. Before dinner Andy, Mattheus, and Claire joined me for a dip in the river. I have never been in colder water in my entire life. After a hot shower and dinner people congregated into the living room where a few of my fellow Flying Kiwi-ers had begun to play before-mentioned piano. Florian, a German high school exchange student, and Phil put on a fantastic show complete with singing and a much less talented accompaniment consisting of spoons, pots, and Holly’s ukulele. Everyone was so relaxed and laid back that night despite the drama of a attention seeking twit unnecessarily going to the hospital. At least Claire got to be herself while she waited with Andy and I to show the ambulance where to go. No one lost much sleep over that. I had spent most of the night in the house and looking down to avoid sheep shit but a definite highlight of that night was the sky. It was the clearest sky I had seen not only on my trip but in my whole life. The only slight drawback was that it was a bit cloudy outside. It was great fun to try and find the constellations and remember some people had pointed out on previous nights of the trip. I was so excited by the stars that I ran inside to get Rachel and Alex to come see them and although they probably thought I was a bit too excited about it we all spent a few minutes arching our necks back as far as they could go trying to take it all in. What a night.

The day is January 24, 2012. Having not had an adrenaline rush in a few days I decide that it would be splendidly good fun to go white water rafting. As always, this required me to wake up earlier than those who weren’t going rafting but it was an easy sacrifice to make. I can sleep when I’m back in the States. Thankfully, Alex had offered to take the tents of everyone going rafting down so that we didn’t have to deal with it in the dark and this gave me another 15 minutes of sleep. When we got to the rafting place the hut was pretty breathtaking. It sat up on top of a hill overlooking the valley through which the river ran and had a huge porch and common area. Steely, who was coming along for the experience, told us this is where they normally had us stay but because of the place’s popularity and the size of our group we weren’t able to this time. At least we got to enjoy it for that morning though. A brief safety speech and explanation of the gear was all that stood between my dry comfortable clothes and the cold, damp, ill fitting outfit that they had us all put on. But if everyone looks ridiculous then no one does, right? We were shuttled down to the start of the course, took a few goofy pictures, and then we were off. While we were in the less rough parts of the course our guide taught us the different rowing techniques, how to get back into the raft if we fell off, and the ever-popular “Nose and Toes” line that described how one was supposed to go down a Class 5 rapid if one found themselves raft-less. Consider the confidence shattered at this point. All this pep talk proved pointless though because our group (which consisted of Andy, Steely, Carol, Claire, Rachel, and myself) navigated the rapids with ease and composure. There are even pictures to prove it. The most excited part of the entire trip was the cliff jump we got to do halfway through. There was a 4m and 10m jump and they were absolutely fabulous. The water was quite frigid though so we moved on after three jumps to keep warm and on schedule. When we got back to the hut we took all of our goofy outfits off, showered, viewed and purchased photos, and were then shuttled back to the camp. All of that before 11am. The day was made even better when we discovered that Alex had indeed made good on her promise to take down our tents. We had a bit of a drive in front of us but the destination had all of us too excited to mind. We got a taste of our campsite about halfway through the afternoon when we stopped just outside of a town alongside a glacier lake at the foot of Mt. Cook. Steely pulled over the bus about 1k out of the town and we all slowly made our way down the hill and onto the rocky beach of the lake. It was absolutely beautiful. The water was this intense light blue that was framed on all sides by the mountains and the cloudless sky above. The beach was entirely rocks which made it a bit of a challenge to get to the water’s edge but it was completely worth it. Although freezing, the water was so refreshing and I managed to make it out fairly far before I realized I couldn’t feel my toes (and that sitting on a bus soaking wet probably wouldn’t be too enjoyable). So naturally I climbed on top of the closest rock and posed like the sexy merman that I am before returning to dry land and more picture opportunities. At the top of the hill there was a very old church that would have provided great views if not for the small army of Asians that descended onto the place right when we got there. I never have quite gotten used to the number of Asians that are here. Sigh. That was our cue to head into the town, which was just a short walk over a dam and consisted of one street lined with a gas station, supermarket, hotel, Asian restaurants, and ice cream shops. Holly and Steely had managed to pass on their ice cream addiction to the rest of us so we managed to grab a few scoops and bottles of wine before being herded back onto the bus. This drive wasn’t nearly as long and we even had a short break so that people who wanted to bike to our campsite could take their bikes down from the trailer and head off. When we got to the campsite it was pretty breathtaking. The weather had stayed perfectly clear and the view was stunning. The bus stopped behind a stand of trees that initially hid the view of Mt. Cook from us but as we spread out searching for a place to set up our tents the entire group was struck with a sense of awe at the sight before us. The campsite was set up on a high cliff overlooking a glacier lake. Right in front of us, Mt. Cook rose directly in front of us framed by the rest of the mountain range. We were even closer to the mountain than we were before and had a panoramic view of the range as it started with foothills on the left and rose into the mountains that culminated in Mt. Cook and then sunk back down again. The lake was vast and sat about 20 meters below the top of the cliff where I set up the tents. From the camp you couldn’t see the other side of the lake as it approached the foot of Mt. Cook. So as the mountains rose higher and higher the lakefront got further and further away which made Mt. Cook an even more impressive figure to see. Since the rest of ‘The Group’ had gone on the bike ride and Alex had set in motion a kind of pay it forward tent program I decided to set up all four of our tents in the best place I could find. There were three factors in determining your tent location at this camp; slope, rocks, and view. You could only pick two though as the rocky beach below extended up the hill and turned into a hard, rocky hill all about the campsite. Deciding not to cram the tents with the rest of the group in a small, slightly flat area at the bottom of the hill (with no view) I went for a front spot along the cliff. With Roger’s help I got the tents set up fairly quickly (it took me longer to find the spot than to set the tents up) and with plenty of time to go for a swim in the lake. The water in this lake was a smidge warmer than in the other but still incredibly cold so my swim was cut short and ended up being more of a wade and rock sit than anything else. But apparently the definition of a swim is getting your head wet so I did indeed go for a swim. The bikers arrived in bits and spurts and shortly after dinner was served. We made sure to get done with eating before the sunset though and got some really amazing views from atop our lakeside cliff. It got cold quickly though so everyone got his or her jackets and beer coats out to stay warm. The topics of conversation were similar to most nights; what we were doing tomorrow, the sexual tension between Holly and Steely, stories of travels past, and plans of travels future. However, we were soon all captivated by the night sky above us. It was the most impressive and clear sky I had ever seen in my entire life. To get a better view we walked back to our tent and decided to lay our ground mats outside. I am sitting here trying to think of how to describe that sky and I simply cannot do it. It puts to shame the sky that I had seen the night before. I have never seen so many stars and they were all so crystal clear. I would get dizzy trying to focus on any one of them because there were so many others lighting up the sky. I have never felt so small. The sheer number was enough to make anyone’s mouth drop. I have no idea how long we laid out there but it was long enough for us to watch Venus drop to the horizon and Orion to move halfway across the sky. And we hadn’t even realized that it happened. The rest of the group slowly made their way to their respective tents until it was just me out there lying on the ground. It was then that I had one of those moments where you think to yourself, “Holy shit, I’m on the other side of the world.” You can’t help but smile at the thought and for a few minutes after you are completely and totally at peace with where you are. Alex came back out and sat with me for a little while longer before she was simply too tired to keep her eyes open anymore. I’m not sure how long I was out there by myself and may have even fallen asleep once or twice but I just felt that the sky was too majestic to cover up with a tent. I caved in eventually though and found my way inside where I was suddenly much more aware of the rocks and unforgiving hard ground. Guess it is true that one sense can truly drown out all the others given the right situation.

The day is January 25, 2012. By this time my body clock is set to wake me up no later than 7:30am regardless of when I go to bed. Despite my best efforts to roll over and go back to sleep I can’t get myself comfortable so I unzip my tent flap and exit into the cool morning. To my surprise, the rest of the camp is fairly active as well and I am actually one of the last to arrive around the breakfast table. The day before Steely had informed us that he was having a lot of trouble with the bus. So much trouble that a mechanic had been called out to see what was wrong with it and that the bus wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Our morning update came and, in their typical optimistic fashion, Holly and Steely informed us that we would all get a good 3-4 hour hike or bike today because the bus would need to be towed to a mechanic. They put most of the emphasis on the hike for understandable reasons. Most people chose to do the hike so we broke camp and got on our way. Just like on the Routeburn, the walking groups were established a few minutes into the hike and I had the pleasure of spending the vast majority of the walk talking with Alex. The weather from the day before had managed to stay so we once again had a cloudless blue sky and an incredibly intense sun to walk under. The walk itself was rather boring as it was simply a path that wound its way through a plane of grass and short bushes. There was no shade or shelter along the path but some was always just in view as if to tease us as we baked under the sun. All in all it was a great few hours filled with good company, conversation, and interesting moments with other members of the group. About every 30 minutes or so we always passed or were passed by a fellow Flying Kiwi-er who we would then pick up in our conversation for awhile before breaking away again. These moments are always the most entertaining as you never know who you are going to come across or what conversation you are going to walk into at precisely the wrong moment. As enjoyable as walking with Alex was though I think we were all glad when we made our way into town. Bathrooms and ice cream were the first things on everyone’s mind. Holly had told us to meet her and Steely in front of the information site where they told us that we had another short walk to get our stuff from the bus and then we would make our way to the campsite we would be staying at. Of course, this was not the site we were originally supposed to stay at and since there was no way to get the trailer with all the tents and food to the site we would all get a free upgrade and dinner that night. Before we left to get our bags from the bus Holly did the infamous ’30 and under’ count in order to separate people into the two cottages that had been booked. Of course I was in the 30 and under category but my closest friends were not so this made for a bit of an awkward moment as we were reminded about the age difference most of us never thought of. It was a very trivial thing but I won’t pretend and say I wasn’t slightly disappointed at the idea of not being able to spend that time with the people I was closest with. All of that is besides the point, though. I imagine that we were quite a site as the 30 of us trudged up the street to the mechanic, a measly broken line of slouched backs, sweat soaked brows, and feet stained red from the dust. It was awesome. As instructed by Holly and Steely, people were only supposed to take what they absolutely needed to the camp. A benefit of only having one bag is that you have no other space to put everything you don’t need so I simply grabbed my pack and walked across the road to the golf course to wait for the Steely shuttle to begin. Slowly but surely I was joined by the rest of the group. The Steely shuttle was delayed by a hospital run for Martin, who had been going through an increasing amount of pain in his chest and ribs after a bike crash at the beginning of the tour. Damn Australia for putting the brakes on the other side of the handlebar. Some of the more impatient people decided to walk or bike the 2k to the campsite and it was slightly entertaining to watch them set off with their bags and packs. The first awkward moment of the ’30 and under’ separation came when those around me encouraged me to ride a bike with the rest of “The Group” to the campsite. This passive aggressive suggestion that I couldn’t bear to be away from them for more than a few minutes had me determined to be the last person to arrive at the campsite. My cause was made quite humorous though when Andy and Rachel rode up to where we were sitting and enthusiastically tried to get me to ride with them. Irony at its finest. It turns out I was on the first shuttle to the site because no one else could be bothered to stand up from their spots and I ended up beating all of them there. I claimed a bunk in the cottage I was assigned and then did some exploring to find the small store, the lakefront, and the cottage that everyone else would be at. Since the walk had been extremely hot and this lake wasn’t glacier water we were all very excited to go for a swim. Although still cold, the water was refreshing beyond compare and at any one point almost the entire group found their way in to some extent. A good hour or two were spent out there swimming and enjoying the day before we went back to our respective cottages to enjoy a shower before dinner. Holly had found us a Thai buffet to eat at which was just a short ride away via the Steely shuttle back into town. All of us were so starving and the poor restaurant never saw us coming. Of course we had told them we were going to show up but they either thought Holly was lying about how many of us there were or simply had no concept of how hungry we were. It was the first time I had been at a buffet where the food is consumed faster than it is brought out. The Thai buffet was actually just a Wednesday special that a local pizzeria and bar set up so while we were waiting for more food to be brought out we took advantage of the bar. Cold, crisp carbs never tasted so good. That’s a dramatization as I am sure there have been moments where I have enjoyed a beer more than at a Thai buffet but BFN, New Zealand is realllllly high up there. A few games of pool were set up followed quickly by jukebox seletions and the night took off from there. Right before we were about to leave the bartender, who had taken quite a liking to Rachel, brought out a huge piece of smoked salmon to show off. I am still convinced this was done in a “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” state of mind but Rachel simply ooh’d and aah’d just enough to get a hunk of salmon and a salmon ball before the Holly shuttle came to pick us up. When we pulled into the campsite we were all terrified by Kathy who just popped out of a bush right in front of us. At first I thought we were going to hit her but quickly came to terms with that situation and let the fright of her appearing in front of the van take over.

*Side Note: I just tried to right the word apparate as in, the term used in Harry Potter for magically getting to one place to another and spent at least 5 minutes trying to find the correct spelling for the word. I even went so far as to ask both my Mom and Dad who informed me that I was bat-shit crazy, that apparate isn’t a real word, and that just because I am in Australia doesn’t mean I get to pretend I am at Hogwarts. Fuck my life.*

Back to Kathy. Oh yes. We were all kinda drunk and with everything that Kathy had put the tour through the past few days were having a grand ‘ol time laughing at what had just happened. Call us bad people if you want, but the situation was just hysterical and it was impossible not to laugh. When the Holly shuttle dropped us off I was told to just sleep in the cottage that had been designated for the “30 and over’s.” At this point, I couldn’t have cared less about what everyone would say or think about it so I went and got my stuff and slept on the extra bed Andy, Claire, Rachel and Alex had in their room. I knew it might be awkward in the morning but screw it.

The day is January 26, 2012. The night before at the Thai buffet Steely and Holly had told us that we would be getting a new bus (new for us, not actually new) and that we would be pinching in some glacier sightseeing around Mt. Cook that we had missed yesterday. We would also be cutting the Catlins out of our tour entirely. I was bummed about this because it is supposed to be a great area but accepted it as something that was out of everyone’s control and made the best of it. To be honest, unless I go through my original itinerary I forget all about the fact that we didn’t go there. We had a fairly leisurely start because our new bus needed to be driven to where we were staying. It was a mad dash on to try and claim seats but we once again ended up in the back. However this bus was much older than the last one and the setup was completely different. Rather than rows of seats on either side the back of the bus had three benches that faces each other. Since there was very limited storage under the bus this meant that we shared the back benches with most of the tents, sleeping bags, and some luggage. It was an interesting puzzle to put together that first morning but from there on out we got pretty quick at getting things arranged. When we had picked up the trailer and made lunch we set out for the glacier. I must say that my idea of a glacier must have been pretty romanticized because I was thinking we would be mere feet away from a gigantic mass of pristine ice where in reality we were many kilometers away from a gigantic mass of dirt and rock covered ice. There were a few walks that one could do around the glacier so I climbed the lookout point and then came around to the lakeside dock before it was time to load back onto the bus. The viewpoint was very cool. From the top of a hill you could see the valley that the glacier had cut, the lake and river that the glacier was currently melting into, and the mountainside where the glacier was still standing hundreds of meters thick. On our way back out of the valley we had two interesting things happen. The first was that Holly pointed out the gully that Helm’s Deep was digitally inserted into in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It took some imagination because the producers had done so much editing of the landscape but there was definitely an unmistakable resemblance. The second interested thing that happened was that Steely hit a rock. And when I say he hit a rock I mean he ran over a boulder. Actually it gave all of us quite a startle and it happened right when we were passing in front of the Helm’s Deep gully so many were standing trying to take a photo. When cameras and people were all back in the respective places Steely pulled over the bus to survey the damage. Poor guy had really done a number on it. The very little cargo space we had under the bus was now gone so Alex and I were joined by even more tents and ground mats in the back. The bus still ran though so we continued on in fear of losing yet another day to mechanic issues. We had some catching up to do from the day before but the long ride went surprisingly quickly and the campsite made it entirely worth it. The camp they had set up for us tonight was very impressive. The entire thing was situated on a flat grassy area overlooking the beach about 20 meters below. It was a surfing beach so there were great waves coming into shore and lots of people running around. It really would have been a great place to stay but as soon as we were done eating a gale struck. The wind was so powerful that it made the tents bend to the point of breaking. After waiting a few minutes to try and ride it out we were given the orders to take the tents down before any further damage could occur. I would pay good money for a video of all of us running around trying to get the tents down in that wind. It had to be an absolutely hysterical sight. Rain covers flying away, various articles of clothing going airborne here and there, and what is easily a two man job requiring five people to do. It was an absolute blast and I was laughing the entire time. When all the tents were packed we took a few moments for pictures and then set off for the impromptu upgrade Holly had managed to set up at the last second. By the time we got there we were all very glad that we had left the campsite because it had begun to rain in addition to the gale. I once again was separated into the ’30 and under’ group and was once again given an ‘honorary old person’ card to make the numbers work better and keep everybody happy. I ended up sleeping with Alex, Rachel and Carrol. Hold your applause, I was on the floor. But it was fun. The four of us sat up for an hour or so having a few drinks and talking before passing out in exhaustion. Other than having one too many floor mats and therefore doing quite a bit of sliding around in my sleep it was a surprisingly good night of rest.

Well, there you have it. The first part of my experience on New Zealand’s South Island. Far from uneventful, I can’t see myself forgetting those five days anytime soon. Can you believe that I still have five more to tell you all about? I promise I will be all caught up on these updates soon and as always thank you for reading these. Be sure to check out the photos I have posted on my shutterfly website as well, the link is on the homepage of this blog.

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