Go West, Young Men

Alright, folks. What you’re about to read is probably the longest singular post I’ll ever write – appropriate given that it chronicles what may be the most eventful trip of my study abroad experience. Allow me to begin by introducing the cast:

Jack – This superhero rock god needs no introduction.

Eddie – Jack’s gym buddy. Attends Davidson and swims like a fishie. Enjoys quoting Dane Cook.

Gabriel – Tall, dark, introspective, and often seen carrying an acoustic guitar. Some believe he could be the reincarnated form of Johnny Cash. Incidentally, Gabe doesn’t believe in reincarnation.
Shadowfax – Jack’s 1989 Toyota Corona. May slow considerably on long uphill stretches, yet all things considered, still the automotive equivalent of Lance Armstrong.

We planned to tour the Westland region of the South Island; the concept came about when my flatmate Zach had raved about his own trek through that particular area and I began looking into some of the attractions along the way. My penchant for anal-retentive research and planning is extremely well documented; you’ve probably already guessed that I constructed a detailed itinerary crammed with activities, directions, phone numbers, costs, estimated driving times, et cetera capped with a three-page bibliography. Well, you’re wrong. About the bibliography, anyway. The rest is pretty much spot on.

I know. Shut up.

The point is that I spent three days prepping our little group for pretty much any eventuality, and in doing so, I suppose that I declared myself de facto Team Captain. More on that later.

Our exodus began bright and early on Wednesday – we crammed three backpacks and a guitar into the trunk and hauled boogie towards Queenstown. Gabe had been there already and wasn’t too keen on it, but I had only seen the outskirts of the city and Eddie had never traveled in that direction at all. After spending the night at the center of town, though, I think we both agreed wholeheartedly with Gabe. Queenstown was absolutely gorgeous and packed with things to do – but at the end of the day it was just a massive ski resort. Prices were astronomical, public parking was nonexistent, and (perhaps most important for me) there was no aura of connection to the landscape. The awe-inspiring Remarkables and shimmering Lake Wakatipu provided the city with a beautiful backdrop, but their presence seemed marginalized by a malignant commercialism that cared only how these awesome natural phenomena might relate to property values. To me, Beach Street emanated the many of the same vibes as Newbury Street, buried within the heart of Boston. The difference is that Boston has a heritage and an evolving purpose based around commercialism – it’s natural there. Queenstown has cut itself adrift from the natural glory that is its birthright in exchange for gaudy materialism and the questionable loyalty of idle tourists. It’s worth noting that although travel agents tend to tout Queenstown as the country’s top attraction, New Zealand natives rank it thirty-sixth.

Please don’t take my words as an indication that visiting Queenstown wasn’t fun – quite the opposite. During the afternoon we hiked up Bob’s Peak on the outskirts of town; at the top we went on a ridiculous (and rather dangerous – Eddie flipped me when I tried to pass him on the inside) luge ride and befriended a couple of employees before heading back down at twilight in a gondola. Our new friends offered to show us their favorite nighttime establishment, so we ate dinner with them at the Waka Tavern, a quiet and cozy spot serving a small crowd of regulars seeking refuge from the utter chaos that emanates from Queenstown’s main drag each night. We slept at a similarly homey hostel called the Last Resort. Small, personal, and complete with a lovely TV lounge and frisky malamute pup named Cocco, the place was completely different from the rest of Queenstown and comes highly recommended by everyone in our group. This place also served as my introduction to RJ’s Natural Licorice – and an addiction has been born. I’m eating some right now, actually.

That evening, a cadre of Giggling Girls also staying at the Last Resort expressed their wish that we remain in Queenstown awhile longer. Lacking much enthusiasm for anything in the city apart from those girls, however, we politely declined and headed for Wanaka, a smallish town with a reputation comparable to that of Queenstown. That said, my flatmates had all raved about the place at one point or another so I kept my hopes relatively high.

The journey from Queenstown to Wanaka is deceptive. Even on topographic maps it appears to be little more than a two-hour jaunt northward along a major highway – easily accomplished on a half tank of petrol. This is not the reality. We began to realize this after the first fifty hairpin turns, when the petrol indicator light started blinking. “This’ll be an adventure,” Gabe reassured us. “One of us can hitchhike the rest of the way and bring back a gas can while the rest of us explore the mountain.” Unfortunately, I didn’t consider this much of a bright side – but fortunately, we began heading downhill a few minutes later and cruised the remaining twenty kilometers to a petrol station riding the brake.

From the moment we arrived in Wanaka I knew it was nothing like Queenstown. Sure, Matterhorn Backpackers was crammed with snowboarders from all corners of the earth – but the town had a relaxed, vaguely eccentric character that spoke of continuity between people, town, and landscape. And what a landscape! Watching the sunset from across the late was one of the most peaceful moments I’ve felt since arriving here – and that’s saying something. Another (very different) Wanaka highlight was the Cinema Paradiso, a cramped movie theater full of old sofas and attached to a decadent café. Halfway through our spy thriller, the lights came up and we received treats in the form of homemade ice cream and what may just be the best chocolate chip cookie in the world.

After our film had concluded, Eddie and Gabe decided to explore the pub scene. Wiped out from driving so much, I chose to stay behind. It was that fateful decision what caused my encounter with Anna and Renee. Extremely long story short, I walked into the communal kitchen searching for a writing utensil. Eddie and Gabe found me there several hours later, laughing my head off with a collection of older travelers, among them two Saucy Aussies with an itinerary similar to ours. We spent much of the next day running into each other at various scenic stops along the road to Franz Josef, and upon arriving at our hostel found we were sharing a dorm room with them and that Anna would be ice climbing the famous Franz Josef glacier with us the following morning. It was obviously meant to be!

I’m not even going to attempt to describe the antics of our newly enlarged troupe over the next twenty-four hours, but I will say that such chaos is rarely visited upon the sleepy town of Franz Josef. We were a veritable Mothra of mirth, a giddy Godzilla that left a visible patina of ridiculousness on everything it touched.

Anna and Renee couldn’t have entered our lives at a better time. Relations between Eddie, Gabe and I were becoming strained and none of us could quite figure out why until Anna artfully deconstructed our situation to me that evening. Essentially, she intuited that my detailed planning of our trip had given me an authority and responsibility I hadn’t really wanted, and so she encouraged me to allow my compatriots to take the reins – which was difficult for me but (to a certain extent) exactly what I managed to do from that point forward. The next day we bid farewell to Anna and Renee with promises to keep in touch and offers of hospitality in Australia and the United States, respectively. Then we scrapped my itinerary and voted to roll on towards Greymouth and the Monteith’s brewery.

At this point I think it’s worth reiterating what has become a theme of this blog: New Zealand scenery is impossibly diverse and tends to change drastically over very short distances. It’s rather like existing on the surface of a crumpled map of the Americas; you can travel from Colorado to Brazil to South Carolina simply by traversing a pair of ridges. And then there are the glaciers – larger than most cities, these massive sheets of winter slowly carve their way towards the sea through what appears to be a rainforest. The juxtaposition is quite startling.

We arrived in Greymouth on Sunday, which basically meant that nothing was open besides the New World grocery store and Monteith’s brewery – neither were the slightest bit engaging. I don’t enjoy beer much, but if I did, our flat and emotionless tour guide at Monteith’s would have completely quelled my enthusiasm. So although the town itself seemed pleasant enough, I think all three of us were more than happy to leave it behind. Our next destination was to be Akaroa, a former French colony on the Banks Peninsula outside Christchurch – but those hairpin turns and a widdly petrol gauge thoroughly thwarted our designs. We ran out of petrol just after sunset in the tiny (population sixty-eight) mountain hamlet of Arthur’s Pass, which consists of a YHA hostel, the Arthur’s Pass Store, the Wobbly Kea Tavern, and about twenty houses along the highway. Thoroughly sick of driving, we decided to spend the night – a compromise that rapidly metamorphosed into one of the best portions of the trip. The three of us ended up paying NZ$32 each that night for a mountain cottage with a fully stocked kitchen, wood stove, stereo system, and two full bathrooms. Between the driving, the stress of running out of petrol in the mountains, and the antics of the previous two evenings with Anna and Renee, I don’t think I’ve ever been more content to stretch out and do absolutely nothing for an evening.

Incidentally, have you ever tried stuffing a pita with salmon and Gouda cheese, then toasting it in the toaster and consuming it messily? I highly recommend trying this sometime. It’s pretty much the most delicious meal you can make without any work.

The next morning our little group made a startling discovery; during the daytime Arthur’s Pass is absolutely gorgeous. If you must be stranded somewhere for a day, this would be the place. Eddie and Gabe spent the morning scrambling over boulders to the base of the spectacular Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall while I hauled myself to the summit of Avalanche Peak and surveyed the entire region. The climb was fantastic – it followed an old streambed to the brushline and then tapered off, leaving me the freedom to chart my own course to the top. I was glad to have learned some basic snowcraft during the Pisa Range adventure – I could clearly recognize that much of the ridgeline was ripe for an avalanche. This may have been the reason that so few other trampers had made the trek that day, but I enjoyed the solitude. Plus, I ended up befriending some wildlife. While eating lunch at the top (sardines on wheat crackers and peanut butter sandwiches), a large alpine parrot charged me and stole a banana right out of my hand. Hollering in surprise, I lunged toward the bird – but it flanked me and opened my backpack before skittering off. I spent the next hour sparring with this incredibly smart creature as it perched just outside of my reach and made occasional passes at whatever edible I was holding at the time. That’s right, I found outsmarting a silly bird challenging. Yuk it up; I was mostly concentrating on taking some sweet pictures. Head over to Flickr and check them out; I think you’ll agree that they are worth losing some dignity over. Not all of it. Just some.

On Monday evening we finally rolled into Akaroa for what would be our last hurrah – or lack thereof. There was absolutely nothing exciting to do in this town, which may have been why I liked it so much. Boats bobbed in the harbor; lemons and grapes grew in the hills. The earth turned ‘round and I just leaned back and watched. The tenor was quite reminiscent of Cape Cod during the off-season, but Akaroa’s beauty remains distinct. It maintains, for one thing, a French theme – you want an example? We slept at Chez la Mer on Rue Lavaud and would have dined at the world-renowned restaurant C’est la Vie, were it open during the winter.

These things said, I didn’t consider Akaroa’s French connection genuine. Instead I saw it as a romanticized image of idyllic European life that made the town no less British at heart – just more colorful, relaxed, and food-oriented. Each of these components contributed mightily to my appreciation for Akaroa, but that last one holds a particularly special place in my heart. On Monday we ate dinner at Bully Hayes – the locals told us it was nothing special, but my stomach and taste buds firmly disagreed. The fresh mussels in herbed tomato chili were phenomenal, and both Eddie and Gabe demolished their succulent-looking salmon fillets in a matter of seconds. We capped the evening off by sharing a mouthwatering slice of dark chocolate cheesecake with fresh kiwifruit, mandarins, and blackberries. The next night we headed to L’Hotel for gourmet pizzas so good that we couldn’t bear to finish them that night. We would have gotten dessert there too, had we not already purchased the makings of chocolate chip cookies. What can I say? Akaroa seems to inspire this sort of thing.

I didn’t want to leave Akaroa, but by Wednesday morning I think we could all feel Ithaca calling to us. It was simply time for this odyssey to reach its conclusion. Furthermore, the semester has kicked into high gear and there’s a substantial amount of work to be done. The drive back to Dunners was uneventful. I stopped and bought some RJ’s Natural Licorice at a petrol station, and we witnessed yet another beautiful sunset as we reached the Otago coast – but all any of us really wanted was the security of our own flats and our own beds in a city we could call home. I dropped off my friends, cleaned out the white stallion that had served us so well over the last few thousand kilometers, and threw myself down into a comfortable chair at 505a Great King Street with a steaming mug of green tea.

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~ by Jack on August 31, 2007.

2 Responses to “Go West, Young Men”

  1. Jack: sounds incredible. Especially that satisfied, exhausted, green-tea contentment at the end.

    Hope you’re still sane and that the land of the long white cloud is treating you ever so wonderfully since that novel of a post.

    Best, M.

  2. jack! this sounds all kinds of amazing… but for christ’s sake, update!

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