Wandering in the Sounds

It’s lightly sprinkling as the sun makes a final dip behind the surrounding green hills and tranquil ocean basins. The windows are speckled with streaks of warm, springtime showers, the panes fogged from the comforting warmth of the log fire by my toes. Beyond pale reflections of tiger orange luminosity lie the striking cradles and ridges of Charlotte Sound, a breathtaking and mystical oasis of hushed lagoons, bewitching, tropical fern forests and striking scenic vistas. Though the sullen weather has dimmed my chances of kayaking along the rocky ridges and shadowed beaches in search of the Keebler Elf Factory, the small pod of dolphins frolicking near shore ignite my enthusiasm and I’m propelled to dig out my sketch pad. The dim lighting and low hanging gray clouds add a delightful mystery to my quick pencil strokes – an opportunity to capture the Marlborough Sounds in a seductive and spellbinding mood.

No complaints here. My early morning five-hour hike is complete and I’m lounging on the protected deck of Mahana Lodge with a fresh cup of tea and a warm blanket for the rest of the afternoon. I just missed the storm. Black clouds loomed in the distance, casting their foreboding glare on it’s captives below for quite some time before I felt the first tiny sprinkles on my nose. By then, I was mere footsteps from my accommodation for the evening. Today’s twenty three kilometer hike was relatively easy compared to the rest of the Queen Charlotte trail which is punctuated by sharp, dusty peaks and narrow cliff-hugging passages. The entire trek stretches over seventy-one kilometers from tip to bottom, beginning at Ship’s Cove and ending at the tiny village of Anakiwa. It’s a tramper’s paradise and ornithologist’s dream come true. I’ve decided to spread the usual three day tramp into four days, taking a day off to lounge, relax, explore, and ‘hopefully’ kayak in Punga Cove. Day’s three and four will cover the final fifty kilometers, an “extremely challenging and difficult, yet rewarding trek” (so says the guidebook). From my lookout on the deck I can trace the path through the steep hills and it looks anything but fun. In the word’s of Scarlet, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” For now I’m content to sip my tea and watch for the pair or Orcas that tend to frequent these coves. A whale sighting would make today storybook perfect.

Countdown from Christchurch

Time to my Chicago arrival is coming closer and closer. They say time flies as you get older but golly!!! The day’s are certainly not lasting long enough and I find myself wishing for extra weeks, days, hours before the final flight home (no offense to all you IL residents!) . I’m making the most of my final weeks on the backpacker trail in New Zealand. I found a wonderful flight deal out of Sydney and bought it right away before the summer steal was gone. This gave me a quick few days to pack in OZ and wish some special friends goodbye before flying into the hub of the south island, charming east coastal Christchurch.

I was joyfully greeted in my Christchurch hostel by a long ago travel buddy and we quickly secured plans for renting a car (i.e. calling over twenty rental places to find the best deal, recalling to find out insurance places, and then calling a third time to double check fees). This took an entire afternoon but in the end we happily commandeered a budget rental from Simon at Canterbury Rentals.

The following several days passed in a flurry as we covered as much ground as humanly possible making time only to sleep, occasionally eat and see every tourist hot spot, remote and discrete off the beaten path enigma, humanly deserted yet wildlife filled beach, historic factory, tantalizing vineyard, unique eatery and all things few and far between.

Little Betty (our mode of transport) carried us south to Dunedin, a thriving university town along the Otago Peninsula. There was plenty to see and do including a climb up the world’s steepest street and a morning tour of the heavenly Cadbury factory (complete with a tasty bag of goodies). My favorite was the chocolate waterfall which I was very tempted to stick my entire head under. The Otago Peninsula is a thriving wildlife oasis full of graceful albatross, the rare yellow eyed penguins, blue penguins, fur seals, and sea lions. Weather was NOT in our favor (rain, wind, and just plain cold) but we bundled up against the extremes and braved the blustery beaches to seek out the most frequented resting coves. Our efforts were successful as we discovered an inlet absolutely teeming with animated ocean life.

Further south brought us to the start of the Scenic Ocean Drive, a sea hugging route often forgotten by drivers who take the quicker, less twisty road to Queenstown. This dramatic and panoramic detour carried us through some of the most remote and “boondock” towns I’ve experienced since Tasmania. Petrol was scarce, food shops were limited and social merriment was nonexistent. However, I met some of the nicest, most gracious and generous individuals while frequenting these out of the way backstreets. In between chasing more penguins along the beaches and lying with lazy sea lions by breezy rocky outcrops, we stumbled upon some intriguing and truly quirky New Zealanders.

Story of a Pest Pursuer

There was Frank the possum poacher who I spent an entire afternoon chatting with and learning the secrets of rodent assassination (there are many!). Frank has been an accomplished and diligent possum hunter for thirty years, claiming that this profession is his only true love in life. The hardy “bushman” was missing most of his teeth, hadn’t trimmed his beard in five years and lacked a pair of matching boots but he was full of smiles and charm. Over endless cups of tea, he shared his most tragic scavenging stories about “those that got away.” This included both possums who escaped his skilled shots as well as the red headed beauty from London whom he courted fourty years ago. Though they never married as she had to return home to take care of her ailing mother, the love letters continued to pour through the mail for decades. Frank voice grew soft as he described how he always intended to fly to the United Kingdom and bring her home but he never had the opportunity or the money. The love birds lost touch about five years ago and Frank has been fervently searching the internet for traces of his friend. (If this doesn’t bring a tear to a girl’s eye!!!!) I paid for Frank’s tea and wished him luck with future overgrown rat execution. Funny, Frank was actually a strict vegetarian and thirty year member of the Sierra Club. Irony is everywhere huh?

An afternoon at the Snappin’ Whistle

Further down the road we met June and Peter. As luck would have it, we ran into this darling senior couple while escaping a rainy afternoon outside of Riverton. There was a single cafe in this one horse town and I was in desperate need of a hot drink. A roaring fire, Simon and Garfunkel serenading from a corner record player, and deep, soft lounging chairs made the “Snappin’ Whistle Cafe” an ideal (and only) stop for coffee. We didn’t leave for the rest of the afternoon.

June and ‘Uncle Pete,’ as we were to call him, were a affectionate and mischievous couple full of giggles and extraordinary stories. Uncle Pete use to work in the mines way back when and June was the daughter of a local farmer set on living a life with the sheep for the rest of her years. As luck would have it, fate intertwined their commonplace existences at the summer fair. It was love at first sight (of course, it happens to everyone doesn’t it??) and Uncle Pete swept June off her feet and back to his half acre shack in the Bay of Islands. From their humble abode they raised nine children, made a fortune with their farm operation, bought and sold several small businesses, traveled around the world, adopted five more children, founded a nationally recognized wildlife organization, lived abroad for dozens of years, traveled some more, cuddled twenty three grandchildren and spent much of their life savings on non-profit companies benefiting disadvantaged youth and the environment. We sat. They talked. The fire kept us warm for the entire afternoon and the tiny table was never without a hot pot of tea and fresh cookies. The rainy afternoon turned into a rather dark, gusty evening and we were quickly invited to stay for dinner. More stories of overseas adventures and dessert of hot peach cobbler. Though still active in ecological circles (Uncle Pete writes for several well known environmental magazines), the sweet couple have settled down in their later years and spend their once adventurous days keeping their little cafe homey and warm. We left amid tight hugs and promises of future visits. Our hands were loaded with bags of goodies (oatmeal cookies) and sheets of paper with every address and telephone number of each and every relative in New Zealand (just in case). Our day may have been ruined by the rain but I couldn’t imagine a better alternative.

On with the Road Trip

Milford Sound was spine tingling wonderful. The road trip from Te Anau was full of twists and turns and curves and dips. Around each corner was another breathtaking landscape of raw, snow covered mountains, clear reflective lakes, pure gushing streams, and remarkable untouched vistas. Our day of frolicking in fiord land was hampered by angry clouds and hours of pouring rain but one could certainly imagine how gorgeous the national park would be in sunny weather. Originally called Piopiotahi, meaning first native thrush in Maori, the Sounds run 15 kilometers inland from the Tasman Sea. Steep cliffs and towering waterfalls line these snaking water channels and are a haven for dolphins, seals and penguins. We took several of the short hikes posted along the roadsides and, though we ended the day damp and shivering, it would definitely be a place to return to on a clear afternoon.

From Milford we zoomed along to Queenstown, home of the Remarkable Mountain Range, Lake Wakatipu and every adrenaline and intoxicating adventure sport known to mankind (and some that I think they just dreamed up overnight.) Along with 75% of the overseas twenty somethings, we combed the streets for some hair raising extreme recreation. From repelling to bungee jumping, white water kayaking to jet boating, and canyon shooting to sky diving, there is something for even the timid traveler. We choose to go lugging down from the Skyline Gondola, an activity that both fit into our budgets and time constraints. It was a bit like sitting in an out-of-control go cart. By the end of the ride, my hair was permanently plastered to my face and I couldn’t blink – – but I arrived in one piece thank goodness.

Saint Patrick’s Day rolled about while in the ‘big city.’ My mom taught me to always be prepared for any situation so of course I suitably pulled out a bright green singlet to celebrate the occasion. Everyone was out on the town for a night of dancing and cheap wine -one of the only nights that we have had the energy to stay up past nine p.m. The night ended with a pizza and slumber party on our bunk room floor for nobody had the stamina and coordination to climb into their top bunks.

A rush through Wanaka’s Puzzling World, a freezing and almost disastrous hike on Mt. Cook, a quick side trip to Lake Tekapo, and an eventful night with an over 70’s tour group in the tiny town of Hasst brought us up to Fox Glacier. I went ICE CLIMBING!! I’m still glowing from this indescribable, delectable experience. Caution: Parents and those prone to motion/height sickness may want to avert their eyes and skip to the following paragraph!! Ice climbing is quite similar to regular rock climbing for I was roped into a harness and we used a technique called top roping (i.e. if I slipped, I wouldn’t plummet to the bottom of the canyon). However, I found it much harder since we were using ice picks or ice axes and crampons to slowly climb up. Therefore, it wasn’t just a matter of searching for a proper foot/hand grip but a whole obstacle of pulling out the engaged ice picks, crampons and swinging them up with enough force to stick securely into the ice. FUN!!!!

There is much more to tell but I think I’ll hold you all in suspense and wait until the next blog. Pictures from the Queen Charlotte and my soon to come kayaking in the Abel Tasman will follow as well! I shouldn’t be spending my time writing anyway since I’ll be home in several short weeks – what am I thinking!??!!