100% Full Cream New Zealand
After almost exactly a month, today our time in the land of the long white cloud is coming to an end. It has been an excellent start to our trip, filled with staggeringly beautiful scenery, magical nature immersion, and probably too many pies. I was told once by a Kiwi ex-boyfriend that New Zealand pies put Australian ones to shame, and I was always like “Yeah, sure, I bet.” *eye roll*. I was wrong to roll my eyes. Even the pies from the shittiest servo are better than a gourmet $13 Bourke Street Bakery pie in Australia. That’s somewhere the Kiwis have us beat. That, and probably some sports stuff, I don’t know.
So after my birthday Neil and I traveled down to Wellington. I absolutely loved it there. I loved how it was easy to walk everywhere, I loved how many breweries there were and how much excellent local beer was on tap, and I loved the adorable architecture. It felt like a tiny little adorable city that I could totally see myself living in. But we did have fantastic weather, which I hear is a total anomaly. Also, as soon as we arrived, Neil and I went walking around the suburb we were staying in, Newtown (surprise - it’s a lot like Sydney Newtown), and as we were walking, I heard someone shout my name “Jen Mackie!” I turned around, and there was a woman I was good friends with in high school, but had fallen out of touch with, we hadn’t seen each other or even really spoken in about 11 years, and she just happened to see me from her car and recognise me. Trippy, and wonderful and I hope this continues to happen elsewhere in the world. (I also ran into my PE teacher from high school and some ex-colleagues in the South Island, so maybe it’s just a New Zealand thing?)
After a few days in Wellington, we headed to Queenstown with my cousin Tess. My cousins in New Zealand are official certified legends, by the way. They have been so hospitable, hilarious and downright lovely, and it has been such a treat to spend time with both of them. Tess is an avid “Tramper” (what they call hiking here. Silly.) so she knows heaps about plants and birds. She’s also a lawyer for the Crown in treaty settlements for Maori Land Titles, so she is really knowledgeable about New Zealand history and a lot of Maori culture also. My other cousin Elspeth is an historian and museum curator, so we couldn’t have had two better unofficial New Zealand guides!
When we arrived in at the DOC (Department of Conservation) office to report in to start our four day hike of the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s eight Great Walks, it turned out we were a day early. We tried to play it cool in front of the DOC rangers, promising that we were more prepared for the walk than we seemed. This was a valuable lesson to get into my head at the start of the trip - if it seems weird, double check it. We had all been a bit confused about dates, but no one had bothered to check, which was dumb. Luckily, it didn’t really affect anything other than that I was really packing my dacks about this hike, and I was all psyched up, but I had to wait another day! So we decided to check out Milford Sound and the surrounding areas for the day, camp out for a night before hitting the trail the next day. There are so many amazing things to see in the areas around Queenstown - the Mirror Pools, The Chasm and Milford Sound (where we actually saw an extremely rare white heron). We also did a ‘short hike’ to Marion Lake, which was challenging - like, quite seriously difficult - with lots of scrambling over rocks and very steep inclines. I was thinking to myself, “I don’t actually think I could do this if I had a pack on my back”. I asked Tess if she thought the Kepler Track would be easier to navigate, and she said she doubted it. I expressed my concern, and she suggested that if we needed to get rid of some weight from our packs, maybe we could abandon things like the chocolate and the goon sack of red wine. I decided these were not sacrifices I was willing to make.
The next day we hit the trail for the Kepler. The first hour and a half really lulls you into a false sense of security, with lush forrest, walking on the flat alongside the lake. “This isn’t so bad! I can do this! I am hiking! Turns out hiking is just walking!” Then the track starts to climb. Just straight up for about four and a half hours. It was extreme. I am not that unfit, but I was moving slow and stopping a lot for scroggin (trail mix) breaks that I probably didn’t need, just to disguise the fact that I was full blown struggling with this uphill battle. Tess gave me the pro-tramping tip that no matter how slow you go, just don’t stop, because it’s too hard to get started again, and the best way to keep distracted from how shit walking uphill is, is to keep talking. She peppered me with questions like “What’s your favourite biscuit? If you could live in any city, what would it be?” (Arnott’s Kingston, Los Angeles)
Neil walked ahead of Tess and I, and by about 2pm, when we hadn’t seen him in well over 2 hrs, we were starving for lunch, and I had moved from pissed off that he hadn’t stopped to wait for us, to seriously worried that he’d taken a wrong turn or fallen off the side of the mountain. However when we burst through the tree line, he was waiting for us and I was so elated that the uphill section of the day was over, I let it slide.
The second day started with the most stunning part of the whole walk - the alpine traverse. We were up amongst the clouds, walking along tiny ridges, among snow and looking over the beautiful lakes below. As we rounded the side of each mountain, the scenery changed dramatically, and looking back to where we had walked from gave me a feeling of elation and accomplishment, like I was some amazing intrepid explorer. Then came the downhill. I think the expression “It’s all downhill from here” is somewhat confusing. Is it supposed to mean it’s going to be easier from now on because going down hill is not as hard as uphill, or does it mean things are going to get worse, because you’re now descending from the peak of your experience. Let me tell you after the day before doing four and a half hours of uphill… downhill is way worse. Two and a half hours of steep downhill with a 12kg pack on your back? It was horrendous. Along the track there are marked traps for pests, and at about trap #3, there was a little hand written sign that said “The hut is not ‘far’ from trap #28”. The scare quotes were ominous, and the anticipation, counting the traps as we saw them made the journey so much harder. If you don’t know what’s coming, it’s easier to just push through, but the countdown made the rest of the day take FOREVER.
Each day was about six hours of hiking, so we arrived at the hut accomodation by about 4 in the afternoon. We would drink coffee, eat chocolate, play scrabble (Neil and I have scored a tiny, adorable travel scrabble set, it’s the best), drink goon and scowl at the annoyingly wholesome people who were also doing the track. We staggered into bed every night at about 8, and were getting up at about 6.30, so it was a lot of sleep, but boy, we needed it! Neil had the good sense to stretch every afternoon once we arrived at the huts - so sensible, so wholesome, so motivated. I did not stretch at all, and paid the price by not being able to walk straight for about 4 days after the hike. I looked like a cowboy crossed with someone who had recently had an ass amputation without anaesthetic.
I think my favourite thing about the hike, other than the top quality banter with my hike buddies, was the changing landscape. I feel like we saw about 4 different types of forrest, from lush, ferny business to spooky sub alpine mossy realness, as well as the snow and tussocky grass right at the top. As I’ve said, hiking is just walking for ages, so it helps that the landscape changed frequently to keep it interesting. I really loved doing this walk, and I would highly recommend it to anyone even vaguely interested. Because there are huts with gas and running water and basic accomodation, it makes it really simple to do a hike that in other circumstances would probably be too challenging for a reasonably novice outdoors-woman such as myself. It has also inspired me that I would like to do more of this extended walking stuff, so watch this space - we may indeed get up to more multi-day hikes on our trip!
After the hike, we headed back into Queenstown and chugged down our first beers like we were recently released prisoners. Tess left us the next day, and Neil and I picked up our camper van that was to be our home for the next 11 days as we drove through the South Island back up to Auckland. We were stuck around the Otago region for a few days, as I had a skydive booked in, but the weather was continually rubbish. Obviously there are way worse places to be stuck in the world, it is some of the most picturesque scenery I have ever witnessed, but it was a little frustrating, as it meant that the rest of our time in the South Island was a bit more rushed as we had to make our ferry from Picton to Wellington. The skydive turned out to be well worth the wait. It was my 30th birthday present from Neil, and I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting to fling myself from a tin can in the sky. I am not hugely afraid of heights or small planes, and I was more excited than scared to do the jump. However as my legs swung over the edge of the plane, the lizard part of my brain kicked in and I suddenly thought “This is stupid, this is a truly idiotic idea. I am going to die, and this Lithuanian man strapped to my back is going to fall and panic”. But the rush of free-falling for 45 seconds blew those thoughts out of my mind. The only other time I panicked was when he said he was going to loosen my straps to make me more comfortable and we were still several sky scraper’s worth of height in the air, and I thought I was just going to flop out of my harness and fall to my death like a little booger he’d flicked without even thinking. But I’m fine, guys. Lived to tell the tale.
Living in the van for 11 days was great - I think it’s the best way to experience New Zealand, especially the South Island. But when I first saw the signs that said “South Island roads are different, allow more time” I didn’t really get it. But they are right. Even though on the map, New Zealand is about the size of your pinky nail, it takes ages to get everywhere. Bloody ages. I don’t know why - it could be the winding roads, the big slow trucks, or maybe you just get stuck in majestic scenery time warps? But it did mean we did way more driving at night than I wanted to, as we had a lot of ground to cover in a limited amount of time. I think we could have quite easily spent another week in the South Island, or even more if we’d had the time to go further south than Queenstown.
I think my favourite part of travelling through New Zealand has been all the hot springs. Naturally scorching hot water just oozes out of the landscape at semi-regular intervals, which is very convenient for me, as I love to soak myself until I am a withered husk of a woman. We had a book of secret, unmarked hot springs from my aforementioned cousin Elspeth, which was a great resource. We found one particularly excellent one, where we had to bush bash off the road, and search for the steam off in the distance where Neil started digging a pool directly into the sand, and unfortunately had to retreat before he really got to enjoy it, due to being under siege by sandflies. Poor Neil - they really did a number on him. For some reason, they don’t like me so much, so I was able to luxuriate in the natural splendour on my own. We visited about 7 or 8 natural hot springs in the South and North islands. I think my favourite was Waikite Valley, a camp ground and hot spring spa, or the Hot Water Beach, a gorgeous surf beach where at low tide, you can dig a hole on the beach that just magically fills up with hot water. Watch your bum though, as the sand at the bottom of the pool can get really hot.
So after a month in New Zealand, staying with my excellent family (shout out to my Uncle Grant and Aunty Tracy and their most excellent dog Digby - thank you so much for your hospitality and for giving me such top notch cousins), we’re headed to Chile this afternoon. I am totally jazzed about this next move. I’m nervous that neither of us speak particularly much Spanish… not that there’s very much we can do about that right now. I’m going to miss New Zealand for many reasons, including my family, the excellent dairy products, and how friendly everyone is. I will not miss how expensive everything is. It is seriously off the charts. I nearly puked when I saw the price of petrol. But we’ll be back, that’s for sure.
Tune in next time for tales of how lost we get in Chile and hopefully don’t get stabbed.