Last week, I regaled you with tales of the Great Down Under, that island – or is it continental – nation of which we share much in terms of cultural identity. This week, we continue to all points south, or as it is commonly known, New Zealand.
My first impression of New Zealand was the wrong one. We had landed after a three hour flight and two more hours into the future in Christchurch, the largest city of New Zealand’s southern island. It was eleven-o-clock at night be the time we even got into a taxi, and our hotel was located about a thirty minute drive away in the city center. It was, I had thought, perhaps a strategic mistake to took book something so far away from the airport, when we were just going back there the next day to pick up our rental car for the weekend. But I didn’t want to sleep next to the airport. I wanted to at least spend some time walking around Christchurch’s downtown. So we sat in the cab and watched a suburban city slide past us. I was reminded of Santa Rosa – ranch houses lining major avenues, a single freeway1motorway down under through the newly developed south part of town, large stretches of undeveloped land. Beverly said she thought of Green Bay.
As we alighted at our hotel, the next impression hit me. New Zealand in April is cold. Chilly. It was glorious. I had carried a sweater than I bought in Australia, and loved the feel of it as the cold air surrounded me.
Beverly went straight to bed. I was still on Sydney time, so I went to the hotel bar and shared a beer with some Kiwis2no fear of this being a disparaging name, folks in New Zealand are proud of being Kiwis in town for something that I never got the straight of. We talked about the United States, about the US accent versus the NZ accent, and I found myself smiling easy. Outside of the accent, the cadence, the words, I could have been back in rural California.
But it wasn’t until morning when I discovered my mistake in thinking. Not until Beverly and I walked across a shop-lined foot & tram traffic only square and saw the miles of construction laid out in front of us like a patient laid out in the autumn morning. Not until we turned the corner and saw the ChristChurch cathedral. I mean to say, when we saw its remains, its corpse.
You might have heard that about five years ago, Christchurch suffered a series of massive earthquakes. It was a story that I noted because my father had been there and spoke so highly of the city and the south island. I had heard of the damage, but I grew up in California. I rode the waving earth in my parent’s second story3it’s a one story house, built on a hill with the living room above the garage, making it a second story in feel, especially during a magnitude 7 earthquake and watched the damage unfurl in 1989 when Loma Prieta shook as my two favorite baseball teams took the field in Candlestick Park. Five years later, I would drive through Northridge and see mountains of rubble – two years after that, in a return visit to the City of Angels, the scars of that earthquake were barely visible.
So five years after this, and Christchurch is still rebuilding. Those undeveloped lots? Torn down homes, sold or abandoned as people moved north or south, away from the city. Behind the noble shell of a ruined church, nearly the entirety of downtown Christchurch is under construction. Cranes loom and jackhammers pound out their rhythm, and all a visitor can do is try not to stare at the laid open dissection of a city that came this close to dying, and buy a coffee or two, add a little into the local economy. But we had an itinerary to keep, so we said good bye for now to Christchurch, so we could visit points south, into the Southern Alps.
From the airport, it was trivial to find State Highway 1, our route south to Friday night’s destination, Dunedin4for those struggling as we did, it’s pronounced “do-nee-din”. Dunedin is a mid-sized city5by New Zealand/Oregon standards of around 150,000 souls, but at its heart, it’s a college town, holding the University of Otago, from which much of the city radiates around. Dunedin is seriously like heaven for me. It reminds me a bit of San Luis Obispo, where you can find long sand beaches along the Pacific Ocean, and mountains and hills surrounding the town like watchful giants.
Our drive south was a bit slow at times. New Zealand, at least the south island, does not have much in the way of motorways. Highway 1 was for its entire length towards Dunedin, a two-lane highway with two-kilometer long passing lanes spaced every ten kilometers or so. It felt very much like rural California or Oregon, like driving out Highway 12 towards Lodi. Tractors slowed traffic for kilometers, strange constructions that looked like someone crossed a John Deere with a locomotive. It took us nearly six hours to drive from Christchurch to Dunedin, but we didn’t mind.
As we entered the region6state? of Otago, the landscape got more rugged, more hilly. Canterbury is mostly flatland, farm land. This here was sheep country, where New Zealand’s second most famous agricultural product reigns over the hills and steep valleys. To punctuate the point, the descent into Dunedin made Cuesta Grade in San Luis feel like a gentle hill. Dunedin is home to the steepest street in the world, and though we didn’t go visit it, I’d like to go back and do just that.
Dunedin charmed us both. Large enough to be fun, hosting New Zealand’s largest domestic brewery, Speight’s, but small enough that it spoke to both of our small town roots. The only downside? The title image of this post, that sign is in Dunedin – to call it far away from everything would be an understatement.
Speight’s was a fun tour – of course, Beverly and I were going to do just that. Our guide led us expertly through the 140 years of beer history in New Zealand, getting a bit of Dunedin history along with our beer. Just what I like. Included with our tour was dinner at the original Speight’s Ale House, which was a serious cut above the local pub. Beverly had beef tenderloin, but I had to sample what NZ is famous for, the lamb.
I was not disappointed.
Rugby was on television, and we soon found out it was the local team, the Highlanders, taking on a team from Perth. The Highlanders I believe were the underdogs in this match, but they were playing across town from us in front of the home crowd, and they providing an ass whooping in front of their fans, including two new inductees watching from our hotel room on the beach, wondering if we could find a way to live in this amazing city.
We only had the one night in Dunedin. We had planned a full trip and our next stop was looking to be the highlight of our trip. Little did we know.
Queenstown, we now know, is the tourist center of Otago. This isn’t to imply that it’s some sort of trap. The town is situated along an inlet of Lake Wakatipu, in glacier-forged valleys of the Southern Alps. Though we were in the mountains, we were only 300 meters above sea level, if that gives you a sense of the landscape. Since Queenstown was going to be a highlight, and our accommodations were on a generous budget from Uncle Phil, Bev and I decided to splurge a little here. We booked a room in Eichart’s Private Hotel, a strange name for a room that turned out to be our own private apartment on the lake, dead center in the bustling and lively nightlife section of town.
We hadn’t even seen our room before we went off on our first adventure in Central Otago. We were doing a wine tasting tour combined with a 5k nature walk7guess who picked this one out? along the Kawarau River, pictured above. If said river seems familiar to you, that’s because it, along with much of the region, featured in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Part of this river was used for the scene with the Argonath, the twin statues of Isildur and Anárion, okay, the fuck-all large statues of the two kings holding out their hands8I’ll be over in the corner ready to hand over my lunch money. The walk was amazing, not only for the scenery, a cross between the hilly vineyards of the Willamette Valley and glacier-forged gorges, but also for the fact that I could walk for two hours in the sun and not be completely drenched in sweat. Our fellow wine tasters stayed in the bus, and we got a warm9read: drunk reception when they picked us up for our final wine tasting of the day.
So, full disclosure time. We came to Queenstown for the wine. We had heard much of New Zealand’s “south 45” pinot vineyards and being fans of the pinot grape and avid Oregon wine drinkers, I’d say it’s safe to say that both of us were excited to try Otago wine.
The verdict? Meh. That’s seriously harsh, and we didn’t quite get to taste a large selection, but what we did… was okay. Our favorite was probably our first, Peregrine, which we bought a bottle expected to age incredibly well. Well, it didn’t, on account that it broke in Gold Coast, in my bag. Excuse me while I shed a tear.
With that out of the way, let me clear any10intentional confusion on whether Queenstown lived up to our expectations.
It fucking blew them out of the water.
Queenstown is a tourist town, but that’s not quite accurate. It’s a resort town, manned and staffed by legions of expat kids passing through the world in their twenties. I spoke to folks from Canada, Hawaii11more on her in a bit, the UK, France, Switzerland, Holland. It’s an outdoor city – bungee jumping mecca12no thanks, hiking, skiing, playing on the lake. We took a tour on a jet boat out into the lake, and then into the Kawarau and Shotover Rivers, flying at 60 kph over 8 inches of water and rapids. The jet boat drivers spin the boat in wild 360s, soaking the folks in the back and flinging us in the front side to side.
Our captain, a young dude in his 20s, maybe 30s, who looked like he lives his life outdoors 300 days out of the year – this guy was seriously fit – made small talk with Bev and I for a few minutes as we sped out towards the Kawarau. She explained she’s an accountant. When asked what I do, I answered truthfully for the first time in my life.
“I’m a writer.”
Gods be damned that felt good to say!
We drank local beer at the pubs, ate huge portions and when it came time to finally see our room, well, holy shit. Right on the water. A raised bedroom suite, with everything complementary. Heated floors in the bathroom. A short walk back to the hotel proper, where breakfast was first class, and I sat on a rainy Sunday morning, drinking coffee and watching the rain leave ripples on the lake while ducks sought out shelter. I enjoyed a conversation with one of the girls from the hotel, originally from the UK, as she lit a fire beside me. I wore jeans and a sweater, and felt like me, felt like home, literally a world away, on points farther south than I ever thought I’d travel.
And yet, the best was still to come.
The rain delayed a trip we planned to Milford Sound – not actually a sound but a fjord – so we spent the day around town. We tasted more wine, we went on our jet boat trip, and we ate world-famous hamburgers.
Fergburger is one of those word-of-mouth places that became word-of-internet. A small burger shack that got international attention, it has a queue out the door and around the block at times, which is what drew us in. We looked it up, decided we had to try a world-famous burger, and got in queue after our boat ride. We were greeted by one of their employees, wearing a t-shirt that read “Fluffer” on the back13I love it, and we instantly recognized each others’ accents as American. She was from Hawaii, traveling the world and working where she could on temporary visas, as many of the young people in Queenstown do. It was amazing being able to recognize the American accent, something I’ve taken for granted here.
The burgers were delicious, by the way. I wouldn’t travel to Otago just for them, but the good news is, there’s a lot to do besides eat burgers.
Like climb into a helicopter and conquer your acrophobia.
Whaaaaaaat. Did I just type those words? Did I just claim to have cleared my fear of heights?
Oh, read on, true believer. Hear the tale of Milford Sound!
Sunday’s planned trip was a wash thanks to the weather. Monday night we were due back in Christchurch, a five-and-half hour drive that I was eager to finish as early as possible. But Bev had found a helicopter trip that included a two-hour cruise out into the fjord. We couldn’t pass this up.
So we went out to the airport. We shared a copter with two Americans, a father and daughter from North Carolina. I quickly acquiesced the front seat to Lee and his daughter, not trusting how I would feel with just a bit of glass and metal as we hurdled through the Southern Alps. Our pilot was a no-nonsense woman, Louisa, who we’d later find out is “The Boss”, and one of the most respected pilots in the area. It should have been a clue when she mentioned that she was tapped to join the committee that worked towards the Fjordlands becoming an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Louisa’s skill was evident, as was Lee’s, as it became clear that he too was a pilot, though a fixed-wing pilot. I stayed quiet and held on to anything I could and tried not to hyperventilate.
The Sound – though it is not a sound, it is a fjord, having been carved by glacial flows – is an intensely magical place. Its beauty is myriad, not only because of the grandeur of its, at points, 6 kilometer high walls, but also because of the subtle things. The streaks of copper that flash green and gold in the cliff walls. The diversity of trees, moss and bushes that grow in the cracks of the sheer rock walls. The seals and birds that perch and circle, feeding off the rich waters that lay endlessly below the surface. The hidden opening into the Tazman Sea that led to Captain Cook’s complete ignorance of the harbor.
My father had repeated often that we should visit. I’ll echo his suggestion. If you do nothing else in life, visit the Milford Sound. See the glaciers the loom above it while you still can. They will not be there in 20 years. Such is the sad fact of our lives.
Climbing back into the “choppa”, as a past Governator has called it, I started to get a bit nervous. It was my turn to sit in the front. How would I react when Louisa pulled back on the controls and lifted us up into the sky, where my terror has name?
Well, something magical happened. She lifted up, turned our craft towards the water and sped off, as smooth as you like it, and me? I enjoyed every part of it. I felt liberated, and all the fear of not being able to stand on solid ground slipped away as the ground slipped away below us. I wouldn’t say that I was cured of acrophobia, but suddenly, I was no longer afraid.
How amazing is that?
Well, I’ll tell you – it wasn’t nearly as amazing as Louisa deftly dropping us down on a glacier 20 minutes later. The large cracks in ice spoke to the limited life the great sheet of ice had, and standing on a glacier while our ride’s blades spun, ready to take off should the ice prove unsteady, I had nothing to fear. Here was something that won’t exist in twenty or thirty years. Carpe glacier.
Back on the ground and in a car headed north towards Christchurch, we drove in stunned silence. We had really just done that. New Zealand bid us farewell in amazing ways on that trip – Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook beyond it shone blue and gold in the early autumn evening. We rode on hills and back road byways that felt so familiar that I had to check to make sure I was still driving on the left side of the road. And in the dark of the evening, we arrived back into Christchurch, back to old hotel downtown. We had no time to explore, but instead found dinner in a small locally sourced restaurant across the street. Our server and hostess was an adorable twenty-something Kiwi bound for Los Angeles and all points north to Seattle for a month or two in the States with a friend. We wished her luck and gave her some suggestions for Portland and San Francisco, contributing a little bit more to the local economy, and feeling well about the spirit of rebirth and youth.
New Zealand exceed anything I could have ever hoped for. I can’t wait to go back – and I will – because I found something that felt so much like home, as far south as I have ever lived north.