Aotearoa, Godzone, Middle Earth, New Zealand, Heaven!
Before a trip I read a lot and plan a lot, but I try not to get too jacked up on anticipation. For me it’s best to try and stay open and let the trip unfold as it will, which is HARD because I love to make plans, book hotels, jigsaw together activities and meals. But I’ve had a few experiences where I planned trips after being inspired by travel articles and found myself trying to recreate someone else’s trip- that was bound to be disappointing (particularly because travel writers always seem to have glamorous friends who throw great parties in the beautiful places they are writing about and I most definitely do not.) There was a time I was giddy with anticipation over swimming with dolphins in the Bay of Plenty, anticipating my son’s delight seeing his favorite animal, but all we saw after three hours motoring around was an albatross. There was food poisoning during an expensive and long looked-forward-to getaway to Harbor Island in the Bahamas, and restaurants closed for renovations or a staff barbecue when I was all keyed up to try the signature dish. The lightbulb moment came one December when we spotted a cheap fare to Rome and just went, six days later, minimal planning, off season, bad weather guaranteed and loved it. The winter food! The charming holiday decorations! The empty museums! All of it made even more delightful because we had so few expectations. So now my happy medium is to plan the basics (flights, beds, transportation) do my research, bookmark activities or restaurants and then stop and put it out of my mind completely until I am there.
With New Zealand though, I couldn’t help but feel some anticipation. Ever since I spent a semester here in college, I’ve loved the place. It could be the people – who combine friendliness and dry wit to a wonderful degree – or it could be the staggering scenery, so much and so varied crowded into such a little country it doesn’t seem fair. When Vance and I travelled in 2001/2002 we spent six weeks here and he loved it. We hiked and kayaked like crazy, and accumulated a big box of wine and gorgeous woolens. In 2011 we came back with the kids, but only had time for ten days motoring around the North Island. Even so they loved it – they became total hot spring junkies, ate hokey pokey ice cream and fish n’ chips with gusto, and had a ball helping a farmer to “dag” his sheep. This time we were coming to the South Island, my favorite part of my favorite country, oh boy! I read this article by Elizabeth Gilbert in Outdoor magazine a few years ago about how she could not go back to Luang Prabang in Laos because her memories of the place were so perfect she didn’t dare mess with it, and I started to feel some of the same trepidation. I didn’t think I would be able to handle it if the weather was terrible or the people unkind.
Our first stop, Christchurch, was firstly about errands. We bought ourselves a used car which we hope will make more financial sense than renting for 3 months. We made the round of camping stores to fill in some odds and ends in our gear since hiking in New Zealand had long been part of the plan; it’s why I insisted on all of us carrying packs, rather than pulling suitcases with wheels, which have made us more conscious of accumulating possessions and more nimble getting on boats and trains, but otherwise haven’t had much of a purpose. We filled a box with road-trip worthy groceries, then we turned our attention to sightseeing.
I barely recognized Christchurch from my time here in college thanks to the string of earthquakes in 2010-2011. Downtown is now a curious mix of the few buildings that survived, buildings that are waiting to be knocked down, empty lots where buildings have been knocked down and are waiting for something new (sometimes with quirky installations from Gap Filler to try to make the emptiness less bleak) and lots of new construction. We visited a funky new retail space made of shipping containers, as well as Quake City, an exhibit about the quakes and the even-better rebuilding of Christchurch. A few good coffees later, it was time to head out.
I could have spent months wandering around the South Island but our time was sandwiched between the holidays and the start of school on February 2nd. That left us three weeks to hopscotch around to the greatest hits (in our opinion anyway). First to Oamaru to see the little blue penguins come in at night. We watched them flail inelegantly through the last few feet of surf and then waddle up the hill, past the grandstand where we sat, and into their burrows where they set up a racket. From Oamaru to Moeraki, with a stop at Fleur’s Place for a spectacular lunch and walk to see the curiously spherical Moeraki Boulders. Then to Cromwell, Queenstown, Te Anau, and Milford Sound. After a rainy cruise on the Sound we started our rainy hike on the Routeburn Track, which Miles helped me write about last post. Let me just add that the hiking here is fantastic, the combination of stunning scenery and glampy huts is heaven to me. While we walked the car fairies came and moved our car to the other end of the track (!), so all we had to do was get in and drive straight to Fergburger in Queenstown for a post-hike fix. From Queenstown we went to Wanaka, then (shrinking) Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, up the west coast through Hokatika and Greymouth, then back across the island to Kaikoura for a swim with wild dusky dolphins (hundreds of them, thank goodness!) We spent a gorgeous afternoon tasting wines in Blenheim, my favorite wine region in the world, then prepared for another 3 night hike, the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
Where the Routeburn was mountainous with frigid alpine lakes, meadows and views of snow capped peaks, the Abel Tasman is a semitropical dream with tree fern fringed beaches and gorgeous turquoise coves for swimming. The park is popular and accessible to day trippers who pour off the water taxis and shuttles onto the beaches, which gives hiking the track a different feel. I mean, we admit we poked a little fun at the guided hikers on the Routeburn who paid a fortune to stay in cushy huts with luxuries such as sheets, hot showers and someone to cook for them, but at least then we were all hiking the same trail, suffering the same steep switchbacks and creaky morning legs. On the Abel Tasman it felt a little funny to be tromping along with our packs and sensible shoes only to be passed by teenagers in bathing suits and flip flops, and we couldn’t help but feel a little huffy our second night when a large family got off a boat, dragged their wheeled suitcases across the tidal flats up to the hut and extracted cold beer, wine, champagne, the ingredients for steak burritos with guacamole and birthday cake. (Our menu: ramen with carrots, rehydrated apricot crumble and water.) Thankfully, we had a nice bunch of people on the same itinerary as us and that made it fun- Kiwis, Dutch and an American from Woodinville, WA of all places.
We had to have some troubles and here they are: Della had a cold that wouldn’t quit. The car we bought immediately developed a weird rattle. We discovered Miles reacted badly to sandfly bites, which raised huge lumps on him long after our bites faded. We were doing a little car camping, to give the budget a buffer now that we were back in the first world with it’s higher food and lodging prices (and tempting lattes and craft beers) but I lost my enthusiasm for it after being kept awake until 1:00 am listening to neighboring campers, Kiwis and Germans, animatedly discussing their respective health care systems. We bagged tenting in Fox Glacier after checking the weather, and were smug in our little cabin while the rain came down. The very next night we were fooled by a lovely evening in Greymouth and cursed our bad choice at 2:00 am as our tent bucked and swayed in the wind like a wild thing. Though we did stay dry, there was not a lot of sleep to be had that night and general crankiness ensued.
None of that is enough to dim my affection for this place. I only wish we had had more time. Next visit, darn it, we will make it to Stewart Island off the very southern tip and hike the Rakiura, and spend a week in Glenorchy, and check out some of the wineries in Otago and so on. And now? We head to Picton tomorrow to catch the ferry to the North Island. We have a few nights in Wellington so we can visit Te Papa, the great national museum, and take a tour of the Weta Cave workshop for the LOTR fans among us. Then we make our way up to Mt. Maunganui where we’ll pause for two whole months while the kids attend a term of school here. After five months of living out of our packs, we are looking forward to stretching out a little, interacting with a bigger circle of people and getting to know a place more in depth. It turns out a little anticipation isn’t so bad after all.